Portraits from South Africa
Roger Ballen’s photographs are as much seductive as they are disconcerting. For 40 years he has used photography to explore some of the most upsetting parts of the psyche while creating a body of unique, startling and beautiful imagery. Ballen’s photographs have an abundance of textures, archetypal imagery and dream-like juxtapositions. They are complex pictures, exquisitely composed leaving the viewer to experience a tension that lingers.
Born in New York in 1950 and based in Johannesburg since 1980, the trajectory of his work has been from the documentary to the aesthetic and are often staged with recurring themes, props, masks, animals and people in awkward positions. What seems private has been heightened with flash lighting bringing with it a sense of voyeurism. His work has been called dark but to Ballen it’s through the dark that one finds the light. “The dark is what people actually refer to as the side of themselves that they’re scared of."
In his book Platteland, Ballen documented people living in the South African countryside faced with revolution, fear, alienation, isolation, and rejection. His photographs were metaphors for various aspects of the human condition rather than a particular circumstance of the time. Later in the Outland series Ballen began to interact with the environment and the subject continuing with an almost Beckett-like theatricality. It's important to Ballen that the viewer feels there is a truth being presented, "The mind has to believe that you’ve captured a genuine moment, because that is the purpose of photography. The mind has to believe that the moment can’t be repeated."
"To discern fact from fiction in his work may be simply impossible," wrote Robert A Sobieszek in the introduction to one of Ballen's books. "To tell acting from real life may also not only be futile but missing the point." Although there is the presumption of reality linked to the photographic image, photography has always walked a fine line between reality and fiction. The history of photography comes from a legacy of painting with it's genres of still life, landscape and portraits but photographers have often brought theatricality and drama to their work Ballen continues to expand his work into this area but these earlier works set the course that he has continued to walk. Ballen’s haunting imagery of those considered being "the other" draws the viewer into a world that is seemingly impoverished. His work can be seen as environmental portraits combining the visual and visceral with a real sense of place.
He says of art, "To me, art should be making people delve inside. It should be a mirror for their own interiors. I’m creating photographs that stick in people’s brains, that’s what art should be doing. Art should be like a virus.. it just gets inside, it transforms your mind, your emotions, your identity, and your consciousness. That’s what art should be doing – that’s not what people want to have happen because that scares them.”