Born in 1950 in New York, Roger Ballen was exposed to photography at a young age, and not just any photography – his mother worked at the world-renowned photographer cooperative, Magnum Photos. While Elliot Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész and Paul Strand taught Ballen about the nature of photography, he studied the nature of our earth, graduating with a PhD in Geography in 1982. Soon thereafter he relocated to South Africa, and for nearly 30 years, Ballen worked as both a photographer and geologist, until about five years ago, which is when he dedicated himself full-time to photography.
Ballen creates masterful work and the world has taken notice. Just this year he has had twelve solo exhibitions across the globe, and his work stands in the permanent collection of dozens of museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Tate Britain, Hassleblad, and the Louisiana Museum. He has published twelve books, makes site-specific installations, and also works with film and video. His music video collaboration with Die Antwoord, “I Fink U Freeky,” has been viewed over 45 million times on Youtube. Ballen has an intricate, layered aesthetic that delves deep into the human psyche, revealing corners of our mind that, for many, rarely go explored.
His retrospective show, Theater of the Absurd, at Fotografiska in Stockholm, invites visitors into the artist’s unique visual universe – one filled with photography, sculpture, films, and installations. The exhibition contains over 100 of Ballen’s photographs from the 1970s to today, including many that never have been exhibited before. There is also a site-specific installation created especially for this show, with drawings and objects collected specifically for the exhibition. The show runs until June 7.
Roger Ballen's Asylum of the Birds film
So, Mr. Ballen, can you please give a brief introduction to yourself and your work?
Well, firstly I have been working on photography for over 50 years, I'm 64 years old, and I live in Johannesburg, South Africa. I've just completed a new book called Asylum of the Birds and a new video Asylum of the Birds. I have been working on many books and shows. I'm committed to black and white photography. I've been using the same camera for all of the series I've done since 1982 – A Roloflex camera with black and white film. Right now I have a very interesting exhibition at Fotografiska, Theater of the Absurd, which I think explores an aspect of my photography that hasn't been fully appreciated, so I've been very pleased to have that exhibition there.
So you've been happy with the exhibition?
Yeah, I think it looks great. I am very, very happy with it. It's interesting for me to be able to make an exhibition on that subject, make the installations that I did, and also show the video. I think it’s a very wide-ranging exhibition dealing with various aspects of my art and my aesthetic.
What was it about the curation of this show that you felt brought forward aspects that hadn't been explored before?
Well, other shows didn't necessarily view the work as absurd. There wasn't a focus on absurdity. But there has always been humor in my pictures and absurdity is an aspect of humor. That had never been focused on in any real way at a show of this size, so that's what made it different.
And so, the show highlights the humor in your works? How do you think that connects with the shadow that also runs through your work?
Humor doesn't necessarily mean that there is no shadow, and absurdity doesn't necessarily mean humor; sometimes absurdity is just the opposite. Absurdity by itself can be humorous, but it can also be tragic. It can be a sign of profound…what word can I use? Resignation. Profound resignation.
And at the end of the film, Asylum of the Birds, you say: “The light comes from the dark.”
You know, if you find the things you haven't explored in yourself, places you haven't been, the shadow side, as you said – if you find those sides and identify with them and probe them and integrate them, then I think you will find more harmony than if you don't.
In the film you also say that your photographs are “mirrors, reflectors, and connectors” that challenge the mind. How do you think that people typically react to your work? Do they find it challenging?
In my opinion, some people view my images as dark because they haven't explored themselves in any real way. So the pictures make them scared because they aren't dealing with who they are in any real way. That’s my interpretation - I wouldn't know how other people feel exactly, I can't get into anybody's head. But I would say some people find the photos depressing, some people find them dark, some people find them humorous, and some people find them enlightening. So, I think that the pictures contain aspects that can be seen on a number of different levels – I think that this is important to understand because they aren't just one-dimensional images, so just like the pictures are multi-dimensional in meaning, they can have multi-dimensional reactions.
You have explained that “archetypal symbols from the deeper levels of human subconscious pervade your photographs. ” Has that been something that has driven you throughout your career?
I think so, because from boyhood onward all of my pictures have a psychological edge, so yeah, they are always based on psychological relationships. It’s been in my nature most of my life, whether it was finding my own childhood, or finding archetypes in my own dreams or in the physical world, and making statements that are ambiguous to me. I find if you work with your nature and you work with who you are and you are comfortable, then things tend to work out much better than if you are trying to do things you are not interested in.
Absolutely. You also incorporate many different elements – such as painting and drawing and sculpture – in your photographs, installations and films. When did you begin working with these different elements, and do you see them all as parts of your artistic practice, or are they all geared towards the end result?
Well, the drawing and the line-making and sculptural installations happened over a long period of time. The drawings I started in people's houses that I went into, the children or people in the house actually drew paintings or drawings all over the walls, so I started to place people against drawings on the walls and that was sort of the beginning. Even before that I was working with the marks and lines and wires and everything else on the walls, but when working inside people's houses, I started to develop and figure out ways of integrating foreground with background, the background being marks, drawings, this sort of thing. This gave me the idea and I worked on that for 15 or 20 years, in the houses themselves. Then beginning in about 2003, I started asking people to make drawings, or I made drawings; I integrated mine with theirs, and this became, gradually and with time, a very important part of what I am doing. So it happened over time and it was a step-by-step process, and it started partly in a documentary way, and now it’s become more of an aesthetic, more than anything else.
In the past you have explained that the photographs capture the "real" or what’s outside of you, and that the drawings and installations are more of a projection of what’s in your mind...
Yeah, that’s correct, but the drawings are out there too, like a broken bottle is out there. They are something for you to comprehend and meditate on and interrelate with, just like the other things in the picture. So yes, you're right that those things do come from my mind, but sometimes they are other people's drawings too, like graffiti. Is there a difference between the pictures where I came across the drawings as graffiti, and when I do them myself? You wouldn't be able to tell the difference. It’s a thing that exists in a place that is then transformed through the camera and through my imagination and my mind, and thereby made into a coherent whole.
Do you see these people that you are encountering as collaborators of sorts?
…The animals are collaborators, too. The animals are more collaborators than the people, in some way. So yeah, everybody is collaborating, but at the end of the day, I am the organizer, I'm the director, I'm the person who takes in all these discreet aspects and tries to make a coherent photograph; the pictures are quite complex.
Installation views from exhibition in Fotografiska Museet, 2014
There must be a strong element of trust and understanding that you have to build with the subjects of your photographs – how do you build and create that connection?
I have been working in these places for 30 years now. So, yeah, you have to get along with people, you have to relate to them, they have to feel comfortable. It has to be a two-way street there; they have to feel that they benefit in some way. These environments, like the Asylum of the Birds House, are dangerous places. There are a lot of people that are unstable, there are a lot of criminals, and there is a lot of violence going on. So, when you have expensive camera equipment there and there are a lot of people that are used to being in violent situations, if you don't get along with people in any real way, then you are just going to end up loosing your equipment, getting beat up, and maybe even killed. That is just the way it is in these places.
Do you feel that your exploration of the darker sides of the human psyche has allowed you to stay more grounded in those dangerous situations?
I think that as I have grown older, I have an implicit understanding of how to work with people, and especially on that level. I know I have a good feeling about what can set people off and what keeps the situation more or less stable. So, I guess it’s part of the human condition, but it’s also understanding the way people react in those situations and the type of people I am dealing with. And it’s not only people, it’s understanding group dynamics in a place like that, so you have got to understand how groups work, and to be able to function within that constraint.
Eugene on the Phone, 2000
It seems that people have become less present in your images, and that animals have become more dominant. Why did that shift happen?
Well, I took pictures of people in a very direct way up until 2002/2003. I worked on people for over thirty years. I guess I started taking serious pictures in about 1968, so that was quite a long period already. I decided gradually, and it wasn't a totally conscious decision; there are always very important other aspects in my pictures, and as long as the face dominated the image, the other aspects of the image couldn’t really present themselves in the same way. I felt it was important to explore other aesthetics in my work other than just portraiture, and this is what happened.
I Fink U Freeky by Die Antwoord
How did portraiture and these other elements come into play during your collaboration with the band, Die Antwoord?
That was a video and I made the installations; the installations are based on photographs of mine, and then there is the integration of music and song and performance. You can compare the backgrounds and installations and part of the aesthetic from my pictures, but you are dealing in another media, just like the installation I made at the museum – it’s a three-dimensional space, it’s not a two-dimensional black and white space. You aren't really comparing apples with apples.
What do you see as the primary difference between film and photography, or moving image and photography?
Well, photography is dealing with an instant, an absolute instant. My photographs are bullet-speed. They are faster than you can blink, so you are dealing with microsecond reality. You have to create a completed reality in that microsecond, whereas in a video, music video or film, it’s a process that occurs over time. It’s a much more narrative-based media. A photograph is a narrative in a sense, but it’s not as clear. It is not a beginning, middle and end sort of thing.
Les hammering into wall, 2000
How was it with the making of Asylum of the Birds? Did you see the film as an element of the artistic project, or as more of a behind-the-scenes documentary?
The film was solely an artistic project, but at the same time, I wanted people to get a feeling of what my process is about and what I am about. You can't really do that in a still photograph; it doesn't work that way. I think the film itself was an artwork, it was enigmatic. It was not necessarily just about documenting Roger Ballen; it’s much more to think about than just that.
Did people's comfort level change at all when you were filming versus photographing?
The people that I work with are not really interested in what I do; they just like being around me. It’s different being in Sweden or American than being in Africa, where the issue of art and self-expression are not a part of people's lives – they are not really involved with it in any real way. They don't really have any engagement with art and photography; it’s like me trying to figure out something I don't have any engagement with… for example, a biological engineer – I just have no idea what they are doing. You can sit there and watch what they are doing; maybe I would have some kind of interest, but I probably wouldn't.
And now you have started a foundation in South Africa, the Roger Ballen Foundation, which is bringing more photography to South Africa.
Yes. This has been going on for about six or seven years now, and we have exhibitions and courses; basically, the purpose is to try to enlighten the people in this part of the world about what photography is and what it can do and where it can take you. Just to educate people to better understand the nature of photography.
Head between legs, 2000
Are you happy with how it’s been received?
Yeah, it’s been received with a lot of enthusiasm. But like everything else in this world when you are dealing with the arts, in most societies it is a low priority for most people, and it’s not something that people spend a lot of their time thinking about. So it’s a big job to get people to focus on art as an important part of their lifestyle. It really is. If you compare an opening at Fotografiska with an important football match between Sweden and Denmark, you will see the difference.
You were quite lucky by having had an early introduction to the arts and photography because your mother was working at Magnum Photos in New York.
Definitely! By the time I had picked up a camera seriously, I'd met people like
André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and I had these books all over my house, so by 18 I had taken some great pictures. I was ready to do it. I never took any courses and my degree is not in photography.
You have a degree in geology, right? And you have been working as a geologist for quite some time?
Yeah, I did that until five or six years ago. But I did both photography and geology for 30 years, and I worked for myself, which was important because I had my own business and I was able to spend time doing my photography. So I had found the right balance. Like most people, I was doing it as a love of mine, a hobby. Without that, my photography wouldn't be where it is today. I loved geology, so fortunately, I found a career that I really liked and one which enabled me to continue with my photography. I spoke to students in Texas recently and I told them that the most important thing you can do – that is, if you want to become an artist/photographer – is to find another career.
(Laughs) I can understand that, definitely.
Definitely. It’s a very hard business and it’s getting worse. Somebody told me the other day that two billion pictures are taken in Sweden every day, so it becomes almost impossible for people to rise to the top. The market is flooded, so it is a very difficult profession.
What are your thoughts on this flooding of images, and this movement around "everyone is a photographer?"
Well, it’s a problem because the business is subjective and because the market is flooded. It’s hard because there is so much out there, you know? It’s very hard for people to ultimately resolve what’s good and what’s bad. What’s good sometimes is what’s commercially successful, but it’s not aesthetically meaningful – but who’s to say? When I grew up, there were a few great photographers and a few people doing this seriously, and that was it. I'm lucky, in a way, that I have gotten to the point that I have. I guess it’s because I did it for so long and because I produce unique images, and I have had a unique career. So, I think that whatever I do will have value because I have made all of these transitions and I have been at it so long, and I've been serious about what I have done and I have learned the hard way – not just sort of sat at a computer trying to figure out the nature of existence.
Do you make a distinction between being a photographer and an artist?
Again, it’s one of these difficult things. Everybody that has a camera is a photographer, I guess. And there are a lot of people sitting in Sweden or Johannesburg with a pencil and paper and drawing a picture of a flower and calling themselves an artist. The question is, what do you mean by “artist”? The problem is that the word “artist” belongs in the garbage can; it doesn't really mean anything. It really doesn't. Why is somebody who is sitting there and drawing a flower next to their bed, and who then calls himself an artist, expressing himself in a more profound way than someone who is taking pictures and who just calls himself a photographer? The whole thing is a big mix up – the word doesn't mean anything. I can define it for myself, but as a social word that is used in a context throughout the world – it’s become meaningless.
At some point, did something internal shift in you, or in how you defined yourself in terms of your photography?
Around '96 or '97, I started to see myself as an artist/photographer. I started to interact more with the situation. I started to express myself in a more complex, more deep, more original way than just documenting people and the way they lived in this particular culture or in any other culture. So yeah, in about '96 I started to see myself as an artist/photographer, and I personally understood the difference.
You have many retrospective shows happening this year, including the one at Fotografiska. What sort of experience have you had looking back over the course of your career?
Well, for me it’s a very good feeling, I feel very positive and it means a lot to me that I, first of all, have been able to do this for so long, and secondly, that people are getting more and more interested in what I have done and that they can identify with the work in some way or another. Nobody walks out and says, “Oh I didn't see anything, I didn't feel anything, what's this guy all about?” Nobody ever does that. So, the pictures definitely stay in people's heads one way or another, and that is great. For me, it’s really rewarding to see all these pictures over the years that, somehow or another, reflect my life through time. For me, personally, there is probably no better way that I could have done it, and I think that is one nice thing about being an artist – you distill some kind of record and identity in different points in time. That's about the best that you can do as a human being.
Many of your projects have resulted or culminated in the publication of a book. Is that one of the reasons you choose to work in that way?
Yeah, I always work towards books. That's been the way I've worked for the past 40 years. My goal was always to produce books. When I finish one book, I begin work on another book. For me, the book is more permanent, and the show at Fotografiska fortunately has a catalog, which is great; they did a nice, good job on the catalog, and to me that is very important – what will be left after the show is gone. When the show closes, it will be all memories, but there is a catalog, which is great.
You mentioned that you focus on black and white photography. What is it about that aesthetic that drives you?
Because there is nothing else I have ever done. You can't really separate my work from the fact that it is in black and white. I like that it is very clean, it’s very precise, it’s very minimalistic. It doesn't pretend to capture reality. It is what it is, and I am the last generation to have grown up with black and white, and I have taken it to places that perhaps nobody else has taken it to, so it gives me a lot of good feelings. I still love it and I don't have the need to do anything else. So, this is good, and I am happy that I have done it this way. I don't have to shift between this one day and that the next day, and another camera here, and another chip here and another paper here. You know, I stick to one thing and I try to get better at it.
Do you also develop your own photographs?
Yeah, I do that. I own a lab with another guy, a commercial lab that develops the pictures. I am scanning the negatives from Asylum of the Birds and for the first time, selling digital pictures because I think digital isn't staying still – it’s improving and it’s reached a crosspoint where probably, in a lot of cases, you can produce better pictures using digital cameras and digital papers rather than film and silver papers. But, at the end of the day, the only thing that’s important is that it doesn't matter what you do or how you do it. The whole thing is: What’s there? What do you do? Forget about all the rest, it’s impossible for you to know what I am really doing. And that’s fine, I wouldn't want it any other way. The only thing that’s really crucial is: What does the person produce?
Now that The Asylum of the Birds is published, do you see that project as completed?
Yeah, of course.
Roger Ballen, 2013
And is there anything else you are working on right now?
Yeah, I am working on a series that involves the painting of glass. I don't know if there is any at Fotografiska; I don't think so, but they are some very powerful pictures that have a sense of ghostlike imagery, and I have been working on that for about eight years. I am also continuing the process of Asylum of the Birds with different animal types, and I have been doing that now for over a year and am happy with it; I feel like I am making progress, which is always important.