Roger Ballen Interview

This interview was published in The Big Issue #175 Volume 15 2010

Roger Ballen is an American-born South African photographer. In the 90s he gained reknown for his two books on South African small towns and poor whites, Dorp and Platteland. Since then his work has become more abstracted and psychological, culminating in his most recent book and exhibition Boarding House.

Chad Rossouw: There has been a distinct change from the 90s to the present, moving from a documentary style to a more theatrical still-life. It seems that one of the dominant themes in your work is the play between reality and fiction or imagination.

Roger Ballen: These are very difficult words to put your finger on. Reality and imagination.  But if one accepts what I think they mean, there is a tension in the work that is very important in this type of photography. Photography, historically, has been a media that tries to depict what we define as reality. I think if photography, generally speaking, tries to go too far beyond reality and loses its roots in reality, it doesn’t work so well. My pictures tend to have an interactive relationship between the imagination and what people see in the pictures as something they might come across, which might be defined as the real.

CR: Is there a direct attempt to access the subconscious?

RB: My photographs are very psychologically driven. They are driven from my own psyche, and reflect my own existential relationship to the world. They are ultimately psychological, and not social or political or economic. Those issues aren’t the purpose for me taking the pictures. I’m not there to make comments about contemporary South Africa.

CR: What is it exactly that you are looking to show about your psyche, because there is a particular aesthetic and a particular theme that keeps on returning in your work?

RB: Each picture is a piece to the puzzle. I am looking for another piece to the puzzle, and when you have another piece that you can fit it into the puzzle, you have a clearer idea of the whole picture. I don’t think I’ll ever get all the pieces. One might say the task is doomed from day one.

CR: The aspects of the psyche that you are trying to bring out seem pessimistic though?

RB: We get into these issues of optimism and pessimism. What is best for this world? Is it an industrialized  contemporary, alienated, electronically driven world society? Is that optimistic? Or is it a society more in touch with nature? What do we want from human society? Obviously we all want peace, prosperity, freedom. All these words, we hear them all the time.  But they are pretty abstract in my mind. For a lot of people freedom means having a Coke.

I go back to the hippy period, which was when I was young. Politics of the self. You can’t solve the rest, until you have solved the politics of the self. I am convinced of that, I really am. And that goes back to what I thought forty years ago. I’m 60 years old now. Solving poverty won’t solve the problem. Having more computers won’t solve the problem. It’s the unpredictable causes of the problems that count. Somebody is going to take something the size of this [holds up Coke can], and detonate it in a big city at some point. It’s going to be a nuclear object.

CR: That is pessimistic.

RB: Not pessimistic. It’s probably realistic. I can carry one of these in my suitcase, and learn how to build a bomb on the Internet. It doesn’t matter though, I am also a geologist. I did that for 30 years. Time doesn’t worry me. A million years doesn’t mean anything. Look at those rocks up there. God knows how many millions of years we are looking at.

CR: Is there any relationship between your work as a geologist and your work as a photographer?

RB: As a geologist you are always looking  below the surface, in this work I am also trying to look below the surface. And my pictures are very formalistic. If you look at geological diagrams, they are always so beautiful, with the layers and the structures. If you have a grip on the more philosophical elements of geology, it gives you grounding to make interesting and important work. You can get a grasp of the universe, in some way or another. Its not like studying contemporary design, studying the earth’s history is a pretty profound study. I don’t do enough of it anymore.

CR: The band Die Antwoord has recently taken some images that are very similar to yours.

RB: I took a couple of photos of them, and they have taken a lot of my symbols and drawings in their work. At the end of the day, when the picture goes out there people use things in different ways. Its probably a good thing, people are using the images, people transfer the images. They may get an interest in my work, look at the books. I think it’s probably a positive thing, because it’s getting the images out there, one way or another. They use them in different ways, some ways I wouldn’t use them. It’s another way of my images making contact with the public.

CR: What is your relationship with the people in your photographs?

RB: Its always good. In my circumstances you don’t get photographs like this if you can’t deal with the people. I always get along with the people I work with. I don’t create problems.

CR: Is it a financial relationship?

RB: No-one becomes a millionaire out of these pictures. If someone needs a Coke, if somebody needs to go to hospital, I do my best to help the people. It’s a two way street. I’m not there to take pictures and walk out. I try to help the people I work with. They deserve it, and why shouldn’t they get help.

CR: There is particular criticism of your work that often comes up. People consider using subjects like you do as exploitative.

RB: That’s probably the most misunderstood word in photography. How does anybody know my relationship with what goes on there. What happens if I paid them a million dollars. Is it still exploitation? What happens if they wanted the picture? How do you, the viewer, know anything about the relationship. I think the pictures that people call most exploitive, are the most effective. You have unsettled the viewer and he has to try and find a defense mechanism to deal with his own problem.