Hidden Archive, RVM #10
Name: Roger Ballen
Date and place of birth: New York City, U.S.A., 1950
First camera: Brownie
Last picture taken: At the Asylum, Johannesburg, South Africa, with a Rolleiflex 6cm X 6cm film camera
• MY FIRST ROLE MODEL WAS PAUL STRAND. I was captivated by his work at an early age. He operated as a photojournalist, but considered himself an artist. He was a street photographer; yet he worked with his subjects in a very intimate way. Even today his work seems timeless. (And yet, in its idealism, it now strikes me as belonging to a previous era). His deep respect for the inherent formal qualities of a photograph, and his use of the square format, were to be significant for me.
• I GOT TO KNOW ANDRE KERTÉSZ. He had left Europe for the USA during the Second World War. Kertész had been influenced by the surrealists: their qualities of puzzlement and contradiction were intrinsic to his eye. My mother was the first person to sell his work in the States, at a photographic gallery that she had opened. Americans had considered his work unsaleable; he in turn was appalled at the unsophisticated state of photography in the USA. I took a photograph on Kertész; verandah on Washington Square one day, looking down on the park; to be in his place, so to speak, to see as he did. It was a kind of tribute to him. I owe to Kertész the understanding of enigma and formal complexity that underlies much of my work. Among other photographers who influenced me were Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Walker Evans and Diane Arbus.
• LIVING IN AFRICA for thirty years has had a profound impact on my personality. Nevertheless, I do not consider myself a African photographer as my images should be universal in meaning. I believe the most important art, the pieces that will be present far into the future are those that implant themselves inside the human subconscious in a profound manner. I have often stated that I want my images to be like silver tip viral bullets; able to pierce into the viewer’s insides before he or she is aware and then like a virus to spread throughout the entire body.
• MY IMAGES ARE THE RESULT OF AN INTERACTION BETWEEN THE INNER AND OUTER WORLD. It is impossible to quantify in any concrete way how much of each aspect is contained in any one image. One cannot decipher how much my images are the result of the result of one methodology over another.
• I NO LONGER TRIED TO RECORD MEANING, BUT TO TRANSFORM IT. Beginning with The Outland Project, in 1995,my images no longer attempted to be objective or representational. The persons photographed are involved in an ambiguous type of theatre of the absurd in which it is sometimes too difficult to determinate what is fiction and what is “real”.
• THE MOST POLITICAL TRANSFORMATIONS ARE PSYCHOLOGICAL. I believe that my photographs are more psychological in meaning. The pictures represent a psychological culture. At the same time they emanate from my own psyche. I have never considered myself a photo journalist or a politically orientated photographer. It is my opinion that if my photographs transform the psyche of the people who view them then I have altered their political consciousness.
• THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ANIMALS AND HUMANS IS ESSENTIALLY ADVERSARIAL. Western society tries to deny this, but it is clear that the destruction of the natural world continues at an unabated rate. There has been no greater holocaust on record. My images not only are a metaphor for the human/animal relationship on the planet; but the common psychological characteristics that bind the two. As someone who has studied both geology and psychology and who has spent decades observing animals; it is quite apparent to me that the human behavior is fundamentally driven by what one may refer to as animal instincts. I believe it is quite crucial that works of art express meaning through visual metaphors. One of the reasons I have continued to work with various animals is that each species carries with it deeply imbedded meanings. You do not need to be from one specific culture to implicit understand that birds could be an archetype for transcendence in other cultures.
• BEAUTY IS PARTIALLY A SUBJECTIVE CONCEPT and partly one that perhaps has its origins in the collective unconscious. My images are multidimensional and can have opposing meanings. In other words the viewer can find be attracted and feel uneasy about my photographs at the same time.
• I FINK U FREEKY OF DIE ANTWOORD WAS ON OF MY MOST RECENT CHALLENGE. It was interesting; I made these installations like I normally do every day. And then I integrated their music within the realm of the installations that I created. So it was a different experience. What I do in a lot of my exhibitions, I’m expressing my vision in other ways. When people go to my shows, there are not just photos on the wall, there’s an installation that mirrors the place of the photographs. I think the music video, more than anything else, opened my mind to the size of that market, compared to the size of the photo market. We got 25 million hits on You tube on this thing. Can you imagine 25 million people seeing a video? Compared to an exhibition, where in a month or two or three, you might have 25 or 30 thousand. But it’s nothing like 25 million. It was an amazing thing to see the power of music. If you can integrate your work with other fields like that, it’s great, because it propelled what I did into 25million people’s heads, most of whom would have never seen my work.
• I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN AND ALWAYS WILL BE A BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHER. I am the last generation to have grown up in a world where this media predominated. You cannot separate the aesthetics of my photographs from the fact that they are in black and white.