Roger Ballen: the journey to Boarding House

The genre's most surreal photorealist talks exclusively to about the early images that shaped his latest work
Roger Ballen, Front door, Hopetown (1983)

1 / 6 Roger Ballen, Front door, Hopetown (1983)

Roger Ballen, Bedroom of railway worker, De Aar (1984)

2 / 6 Roger Ballen, Bedroom of railway worker, De Aar (1984)

Roger Ballen, Puppy between feet (1999)

3 / 6 Roger Ballen, Puppy between feet (1999)

Roger Ballen, Sleeping girl (2000)

4 / 6 Roger Ballen, Sleeping girl (2000)

Roger Ballen, Ratman (2000)

5 / 6 Roger Ballen, Ratman (2000)

Roger Ballen, Prowling (2001)

6 / 6 Roger Ballen, Prowling (2001)

Born in New York in 1950, the son of a Magnum photography editor, Roger Ballen has lived and worked in South Africa since the 1980s. A geologist by trade, his work in the remote and marginalised areas of South Africa also sparked his interest in photographing the people that existed at the fringes of society. For many years his photography was his own private hobby, and it was not until 1994 that his work came to a wider audience. 

A major retrospective of Ballen's work formed part of BOZAR's Summer of Photography event in Brussels this year, and he is currently the subject of a one-man show at the Stenersen Museum in Oslo (until January 23, 2011).

As BOZAR came to a close he spoke to about some of his early images, and how they shaped his later work. 


Front door, Hope Town (1983, Outland)

In 1973 I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. I decided that I’d had enough of the Western world. I was quite restless. Perhaps I was a hippy in one way or another. During that time there was a general rebellion against the Western world and I guess I got caught in that rebellion and I was seeking answers elsewhere. I took a long trip that lasted four years. I went from Cairo to Capetown. I crossed Africa by land and found myself in South Africa in '74. I spent a year and a half there. In 1976/77 I found myself back in the United states and from 78-82 I did a PHD in geology. In 1982 I found myself back in South Africa as a geologist, as well as a photographer, roaming the South African countryside. There the skies are very blue and the sun is very harsh, and it was very difficult for me to take photographs outside. For some reason – I guess the lack of cloud or how difficult it was sitting in the car day after day in very hot conditions - I decided to do something very different. I began to knock on doors. The front door as you see in this photograph is one of those I knocked on. And when I knocked on that door something else happened. I went inside. I went inside physically, and I went inside metaphorically. I found the subject matter that would take me through the next 30 years. I found wires, I noticed the marks on the wall, and ultimately I found the subjects and the type of people I work with now. From there it was just a matter of adding layers, year after year after year.


Bedroom of railway worker, De Aar (1984, Outland)

One of the most important photographs, I guess of my career, was this one. This was the first of my wire photographs. During this time I didn’t touch anything, I didn’t play with anything. There was no real interaction going on between me and my subjects. I was strictly a documentary photographer in many ways. I was there to define a place in South Africa, a particular aesthetic that related back to these small towns. It wasn’t necessarily only about my expressive nature, it was about trying to capture the expressive nature of these places. In the particular house in which this photograph was taken I also found other photographs, photographs that had a similarity to this one. In these photographs were the foundations of my later photographs. In this picture you can see the wires, you can see the walls. You can see a place that is almost surrealistic in nature. It’s primitive in nature. It’s expressive in nature. But it also says something very much about the place.


Puppy between feet (1999, Outland)

This was quite a revolutionary photograph for me personally. Prior to this photograph I’d been using an 80mm lens and I could only get so close to the subject without the subject being out of focus. When I was next in New York City I found a rolling 90mm macro lens and, returning to South Africa shortly afterwards, I used this lens for the first time to take Puppy between feet. I’d been looking at this man’s calloused feet and noticed he had a very long, distorted small toe. His feet really appealed to me in many ways - they were like a metaphor for an animal’s foot. Partly because I didn’t have the right lens, I hadn't been able to transform those feet into a photograph. So the first time I saw this man with my new lens I was really motivated to make a good photograph. For some reason, and as luck may have it, this man had some very small puppies in his house. I said ‘how shall we photograph these puppies?' and he laid down and put them between his feet. It’s a very special and very metaphoric image because the feet are shaped in such a way that they look very old and very weathered and the puppy is very new and very beautiful. At the same time it looks as though the puppy is coming out of a womb. 


Portrait of Sleeping Girl (2000, Outland)

I look upon this photograph as a transitional photograph. Up to about the year 2000 most of my portraits of people didn’t have drawings on the wall. After 2002/3 a lot of the faces of the subjects disappeared. So during this period there were subjects with faces and drawings on the wall. We're not quite clear about how these drawings got there, nor how the cat got there. I can tell you as an aside that trying to photograph a cat like that is no easy matter. Cats are very jumpy and to get a cat to sit still like this for any period of time is next to impossible. There is also something about that cat in relationship to the painting above. In a way the cat is a protector of the child. In a way it’s a very metaphoric photograph. I’m not one to talk about the meaning of my photographs but I guess I could say that between the cat and the drawings above, somebody is looking after that child.

Most of the people I photograph I’ve known for many years. But its not always the case that if you know someone you can take a good photograph of them. My photographs are comprised of many elements. For example, in this picture I knew this child for 8/9 years before I was able to get a good picture of her, and I went to her house quite often. So just knowing her wasn’t really enough to make a great photograph. I guess if I’d taken a photograph of her sleeping in the same bed it still might not have been a great photograph without the cat appearing. In photography there’s always a matter of chance. 


Ratman (2000, Shadow Chamber)

Ratman was one of my last, ‘portrait’ photographs. It was taken right after the release of the book Outland. If you look at Outland you see a lot of portraits; the faces of the people dominate the images. This man spent most of the day catching rats in his house and in other people’s houses. He was a very strange man. Unlike a lot of other rat catchers he didn’t kill the rats, he just kept them in cages. If you went around his house you’d find many hundreds of rats in different cages. He would play with them and give them all names. He knew almost every rat that he had. He loved the rats. The rats were really his friends. I think he liked the pictures that were taken of him. I gave him pictures, but he was so absorbed in his rats and what he was doing I think he didn’t really care. 

I knew him for maybe three years or so before I took this picture. Something quite terrible happened to this man. In about 2002, he caught some sickness, some bone, or blood disease. For the next four or five years I watched this man go from a very strong, powerful man to someone who could hardly get out of bed. There was nobody to take care of his rats and it was a terrible situation. It was hard to see a strong man like this deteriorate so quickly.


Prowling (2001, Shadow Chamber)  

This photograph was of a boy I’d known for some time. He and his mother moved from place to place - they didn’t stay in a place too long. In 2001 I met him and took this picture in what I refer to as the 'Shadow Chamber Building'. The boy thought he was a cat. He put on a mask and he did this quite often. Sometimes he’d put on other masks, but the day I photographed him he had a cat mask on. Wearing he mask, he would jump on the furniture and screech the word ‘meow, meow, meow’ and then he would jump from one piece of furniture to the next. One time he saw some paint on the floor. He put his hand on the paint, and when he jumped on a piece of furniture he put his hand on the wall with the paint. After he did that he lifted his hand to me. Perhaps the most interesting thing, the most important thing in this photograph is his palm. There's no paint on his palm. And for some reason this little place on his hand that shows no paint perhaps speaks more about photography than anything else in the photograph. Most good photographs have something unpredictable in them. Something you can’t make or you can’t think about prior to taking the picture. It just sort of happens. It’s a special moment that reveals the essence about time. Essence about the experience of taking the picture and an essence about the picture that is unique in itself. For some reason this hand didn’t have paint in one part of it. It is very strange that you find these prints on the wall but when you see the hand there’s no paint on the palm.

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