The Substance of Ideas: An Interview with Photographer Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen captures an almost unimaginable world and is a legend in the world of photography. For the last thirty years, Ballen has extensively photographed the fascinating and sometimes violent existence of people living in small villages, or ‘dorps,’ which are found in clusters throughout rural South Africa. With a doctorate in geology, the photographer oscillates between a poet and an anthropologist, exploring a deeper, stranger, and darker side of the human condition. Upon leaving New York in the early 1970s, Ballen expatriated himself to South Africa. To date, he has exhibited his photographs internationally and some of his images have become iconic in the photographic canon. Back in March, Phaidon released the second edition of his seminal book "Outland," which brings together nearly thirty years of the photographer’s work. An exhibition of Ballen’s current series entitled “Asylum of the Birds” is now on view at Galerie Karstan Greve in Cologne, Germany. The new series is pushing even further into the metaphorical from the more literal portrait work of the photographer’s early career. In the late 1990s you can see a clear shift beginning to emerge. In the following interview, Ballen discusses the strange world he captures with his camera, the importance of substance in ideas, and his new photographic series. 

Autre: So, I guess my first question – to dive right in – is when did you pick up a camera and decide to venture into the subject matter you have been exploring for roughly twenty years? 

Roger Ballen: I got interested in photography as an adolescent. My first attempt to try to express myself with a camera came in 1968. When I graduated from high school, my family gave me a Nikon camera. I remember taking that camera and going out like a bullet out of a gun, trying to find a way to make pictures. I was trying to emulate some of the Magnum people who influenced me, created a basic foundation for my work—Kertész wasn’t a part of Magnum, but Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwit. It’s been a gradual, step-by-step process. I guess I’ve been doing pictures now for fifty years. It’s one step leading to the next step. But sometimes the steps are bigger and some are smaller. The crucial time probably came in about ’96, ’97 when I was doing the Outland book. I started to see myself as an artist as much as a photographer, expressing my aesthetic rather than necessarily expressing the aesthetic of the subject matter itself.

OK: Speaking of big steps, what prompted your move to South Africa?

RB: In 1973, my mother died, and I was quite restless. I liked traveling.  But life in ’73 isn’t what it is now. I’d been in a plane a few times in my life, so people did travel in the same way, but you lived a much more sedentary existence. So I was going to go away for three months and I ended up going for five years. I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town in ’74. I got here, I found it interesting, I met my future wife, and a few other things. Then, I ended up doing a trip from Istanbul to New Guinea by land. Then, I went back to the United States in ’77 to do a Ph. D. in the geological field at the Colorado School of Mines. I graduated there in ’81, and then I came back here. I found the country interesting, and my wife was from here. From the point of view of geology, the thing in which I had a profession, it was a great place to work.

OK: Discovering these areas where you shoot, were they difficult to stumble upon?

RB: From 1982-84 I worked exclusively in the countryside here. It wasn’t easy—the people in the towns here weren’t very well populated. You drove around trying to find subjects and peoples and places. Then, you’d have to get out of the car and talk to somebody. The key moment, and one of the most important moments in my career, came during the early ‘80s. It had a lot to do with these places not being very well-frequented by other people, and being haunting and cloudless. I used to drive around—I was in these places doing geology and photography at the same time. It was getting pretty boring sitting in the car with such a bright sun. You can probably find it in parts of California in the summertime. I then decided to knock on people’s doors, and I started to go inside. That was metaphorically and physically a big step. I found the motifs. I started using a flash. I found the subject matters. I started using a square format then. So this was the big step that happened in ’83, ’84 that created the foundation for the later work in so many ways.

OK: I’ve been a major fan of your work for a long time. Before I did this magazine, I studied photography. I remember growing up and looking at your books.

RB: That’s terrific. It’s always good to hear this. I’m on the bottom of the planet, here. One of the reasons I feel I’ve created a unique aesthetic is that I never really got that involved in the art world. I know the history of photography super well, art too. But it was really just a matter of myself relating to myself. I didn’t go to exhibitions. I was basically isolated.

OK: It reminds me a bit of William Eggleston. He wasn’t part of the art world. He wasn’t part of this world that was so ready to accept his work. He was from the South. So it seems when you’re too insular in that world, it’s difficult to develop a voice.

RB: It’s gotten more and more difficult, when there are trillions of pictures taken. I had a foot in two worlds. I had the pre-Internet world that I grew up in, the film world, and I developed that. I still use the same camera from 1982. I’m still using film—the same camera, the same format, everything. I go back to when I was younger—I travelled the world. Now, I go back to the same nail on the wall and try to knock it in deeper. People don’t have any patience. They want instantaneous results. The photograph itself is an instantaneous process—it’s not like chiseling away at a marble rock to make a sculpture. People don’t have a concentration.

OK: I think, eventually, it’s going to become a situation where there’s a direct delineation between everyone being a photographer and real photography. I think there’s going to be more of delineation between those two things. It’s going to be less saturated.

RB: Unfortunately, the problem is who judges. A lot of people in this business grew up in the newer generation and they tend to try to find new angles and edges that are basically technological, that are focused on just the idea rather than the substance of the idea. The substance of the idea, to me, is crucial to good art. You don’t hear about that too much. You don’t hear about metaphor, depth, indescribably parts of the psyche. It’s gimmick of the gimmick. That’s the problem—how we judge this stuff. How does something good in this situation, in this imagery, rise to the surface? It’s a real battle. I wouldn’t want to suggest to a friend of mine or my children to go into this battle without another profession.

OK: It’s a really interesting battle. And speaking of metaphor, I want to talk about how your work, in the beginning, was very literal, very portrait-oriented. In the ‘90s, it became much more poetic and metaphorical. What prompted that shift?

RB: It’s very hard to say. Maybe it was confidence. Maybe it was a step forward—one picture would build on the next picture would build on the next picture. I started to find my aim. It wasn’t that I saw some pictures and said, “I want to be like that.” It was really a step-by-step process. You can see that in the Outland book. If you look at the early Outland work in ’95, ’96, there’s less of a link to the plot of that work. It’s a lot more documentary and portraiture. And then beginning in ’97, there seems to be a “fear of the absurd” taking place. That’s where that break started to happen. I don’t know what lead to that break. I started to ask different questions. The central question was, is chaos more prominent in the human condition? I was asking a philosophical question, to myself in some way. Also, I guess if I had to say who influenced me—people always get it wrong. They think people like Diane Arbus or somebody like this. But it was actually Beckett. Beckett in the Outland period had the most influence in terms of what I was trying to achieve. I was trying to understand something absurd, trying to probe into the human condition, not necessarily probe into the social and political condition of poor whites in South Africa. 

OK: There’s a direct difference between what Arbus is doing and what you’re doing. It seems like there’s more of a vision; it’s less exploitative. What do you say to people that say your work is similar?

RB: If there is any link to Arbus at all, it stopped in ’97. And then beginning in early 2002, 2003, there’s zero. This word exploitative is pathetic. It’s actually pathetic. It shows an inability to understand anything about photography. What does anybody know about being the subjects? They could have gotten on their hands and knees and begged me to take their picture. They could have paid me to take their picture. What does anybody know about these subjects? You’re looking at a visual statement. You’re not watching a TV program on somebody talking about their life. It’s an instantaneous moment. Nobody else could have taken pictures like me. It’s transformative. You’re looking at a two-dimensional object on a piece of paper, and it’s giving you some insight into your own psyche, maybe some sort of insight into the deeper issues of human experience. Bringing up the word exploitative… I’ve always told people who ask me this question that the people who say are actually the most affected. Psychologically, in a deeper way, the pictures break through their repressions, and they come at me with a projection or some sort of defensive mechanism to blame me for the crack in their psyche.

OK: I love that. You’re creating a document that’s really important. Edward Curtis, that 30-year document of Native Americans—we wouldn’t have that if it wasn’t for someone setting up their camera and spending that time to explore that subject matter. 

RB: I agree. People basically drop their pants when they talk like that. I think you know what I mean. They see, on the front of the newspaper, somebody dead on the street and the mother lying over the dead person crying—on TV, CNN, or in the newspaper. Is that great? What are you talking about? It’s hopeless. The pictures I take get into their head—that’s the difference. They’re blanked out about it. Just like going into the supermarket—four hundred dead chickens sitting there, nobody blinks an eye. But someone sees my Asylum of the Birds movie, that’s horrible. Look at the chickens’ heads being chopped off. This is what we live in. We could go on and on about predictions. It’s not even worth talking about.

OK: Speaking of your new series, “Asylum of the Birds.” I want to talk about that exhibition. What can we expect from those photographs? What can we experience with those photographs? 

RB: With Asylum of the Birds, it’s a much more abstract way of seeing the world. They’re layered, multi-dimensional photographs. They have opposite meanings. There’s the relationship with the birds, which have metaphoric symbols—it has basically the archetypal metaphoric symbol to it. And then there are a lot of drawings, which are hard to put a finger on what each drawing means, how each drawing relates to another drawing, how the drawings relate to the animals and the objects in the pictures. They’re very hard photographs to put words to. They have multiple metaphors. They’re very visual in nature. They’re hard to condense into any one way of deciphering. For myself, I wouldn’t want to say this or that. I commonly say that the best pictures don’t have words. If I do have words, the picture is not a good picture. I’m quite sure about that. People want to put a meaning of something into a package. If they can’t put it into a package, they get insecure.

OK: A lot of people are afraid of their own psyche. It’s really difficult for people to step outside of that. 

RB: Very difficult.

OK: And maybe the world would be a better place if people did.

RB: I say that the only way we’ll have an improvement in this world—this goes back to what I learned at Berkeley 40 years ago—people have to break their own repression, come to terms with their own interior, and become more integrated in their identity. Important art helps people do this in some way. But I don’t think art is the seer of the problem. It’s such a worldwide epidemic problem, and perhaps always has been. We can’t say that the chances for peace are any greater now than they were one hundred years ago. We live in a dangerous world, basically. 

OK: Is there anything else you’re working on now? 

RB: I’m working on two projects right now. One is a project that I refer to as “Apparitions.” Have you seen the Asylum of the Birds book. Look at the last couple of pages, you’ll see some of those photos. They’re two-dimensional photographs. They look like drawings, but they’re taken with black and white photography.

 OK: I love the Die Antwoord music video, by the way. I love that they were able to bring your work to a younger audience. Do you think was successful?

RB: It’s hard to believe, we got like 65 million hits. It’s incredible. I can’t believe it sometimes. It really got in people’s heads. I think it really worked well because most music videos are mono-dimensional in meaning. I think this had a multiple-level meaning that was accessible to people. There’s something deeper in it, but also something humorous in it. And the music fit the visual. It just came together. Some things just work out that way and sometimes they don’t. 

OK: It’s not the heyday for music videos.

RB: It’s terrible; it’s like photographs.

OK: It’s disposable. It’s consumable, and then that’s it. 

RB: That’s what I’m saying. People’s attention span is much different than it used to be. I don’t know. At age 65, I stopped guessing about the future. I don’t know one day from the next. I just take it as it comes and do my best and focus on what I’m doing. I can do my best to produce interesting art. The work has to have its own life. One doesn’t know what’s effective in all sorts of ways. I’m really satisfied that I’ve followed this career all those years. It’s quite fulfilling to see the work evolving over time. It’s like a diary.

OK: It’s a very rare, unique, and beautiful body of work. I really appreciate it. 

RB: Thank you. I really appreciate your time and interest. Be well.

Roger Ballen "Asylum of the Birds" will be on view at Galerie Karsten Greve Köln until August 29, 2015. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper