Photographer Interview

Notes from Roger Ballen

Tell us about your initial introduction to photography as a child?

I grew up in New York City during the 60’s and my mother worked at Magnum - an international photographic co-operative at the height of art photography at the time. So I was introduced to the great work of famous photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson at a very early age.

You are originally from New York – when did you arrive in South Africa and what bought you here?

A talented documentarian, artist and eccentric born in New York, but a Joburger since the '70s...

I had a great desire to travel and hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town in 1974. The pictures I took on this trip were published in my first photographic book called Boyhood.

You have a deep level of understanding of photography, but you have never studied the subject. Do you think this is an innate gift or a craft that is learned through experience?

I do have a high visual sensibility. That, coupled with experience and the fact that I was introduced to photography at an early age certainly ties it all together. But even great athletes like Tiger Woods practice every day.

How have you evolved as a photographer through your own body of work?

Photography is not like painting where you can achieve everything in your mind and then paint it on a canvas. Photography relies on capturing a moment, so there’s a concrete relationship between what’s happening in the mind and what’s happening out there. It has been quite challenging and rewarding to be able to define my relationship between my inner and outer reality.

What inspired your very distinct medium of only working in black and white?

I grew up with black and white - it’s always been a medium that I’ve loved and one that has challenged me. My work is synonymous with black and white as I guess it also lends to a more minimalist and abstract portrayal. I’ve never felt an affinity to colour and feel in some strange way that I’m the last generation to grow up in black and white, so it’s important for me to take it as far as I can.

What sparked your interest in documenting marginalized or outcast communities?

It’s was more my interest in the human condition. Beyond saying anything about the community, the history, the culture or the country, my goal and priority has always been to make psychological statements. People who look at the images have no idea where they’ve been taken, but can still relate to the mood, the aesthetic and can identify with the subjects.

It was such a politically sensitive period of time for a book like Dorps & Platteland to be published. What conversations did the books spark and did you face any consequences at the time?

A large group of the population were defensive about the images. They felt that I had journeyed into an area that I suppose broke certain myths that the previous government had tried to promulgate. The images were psychologically driven and got into people’s heads and stayed there. The people that made the most noise were the ones who were most affected. The controversy of the image was its power. I was always in the press, I was ostracised by society and even faced a few death threats - it wasn’t an easy time. Only now, years later, people are appreciating my contribution. But I’ve always said that I only had one friend during of all this and that was Leroy, my dog.

Your work is very complex and emotionally affecting often leaving the viewer confused or trying to make sense of the message or meaning. Is this your intention?

I don’t start with an idea. I don’t say ‘I want make a funny, sad or complex picture today’.  I don’t take pictures for an audience. My message is purely visual and there is no goal in trying to relay a verbal message. My pictures evolve as I interact with the subjects. If I have one goal in mind it’s for my pictures to stick in people’s heads and change the way they view the world, to expand their understanding of who they are. If a picture can do that in some way or another it’s been successful.

Some critics say your work is set up or contrived. What do you say to that?

It’s their opinion, there’s nothing much I can say. My work gets a lot of attention all over the world which says a lot but you’ll always get varied opinions. I can confidently say that I believe what I’m doing extends the boundaries of photography.

Local musical artists, Die Antwoord, are quite obviously inspired by your work - how was it to work with them on their music video ‘I fink you Freeky’?

It came as a great surprise that we were able to produce such a great video so spontaneously. It has received a lot of attention -23 million hits on YouTube and some big awards! It’s a reaction I never expected and I believe the video will continue to have impact. It’s really a unique piece of work which I am personally proud to have been involved with.

What’s next on the cards for Roger Ballen – any interesting projects we can look forward to?

Next year I’m going to be publishing a book featuring birds in a strange, surreal world,which is a project I have been working on for five years. Also a revised edition of Platteland is going to be republished next year by Protea Books, with the addition of a reasonable amount of images that were not published in the first edition.