Challenging Depth of Focus

This review was published in the Mail & Guardian Volume 26 no 52, December 10, 2010

It is one of the fundamental aspects of a photograph that it bears testimony to the existence of something, while at the same time is not that thing, but a very convincing representation in two dimensions. Roger Ballen’s photographs often play with this principle, depicting reality and emphasizing the ‘pictureness’ of that depiction. In recent years, this has become more pronounced, with Ballen exploring the potential for a photograph to portray a fictional, imaginative realism.

Ballen’s recent show, Boarding House, currently on show at the IZIKO South African National Gallery is a case in point. The boarding house of the title is a place that is both implied to exist with walls, people and the traces of their existence, and clearly is a fantasy, a non-place. Ballen has propagated this myth by dropping hints that it exists as a place, while refusing to reveal its location.

In Eulogy (2004), a young white man in ill-fitting clothes stands in a room. He’s clutching a broken accordion, spread in an arc to mirror the dead chicken lying on a spring mesh bed. These elements clearly point to the existence of the teenager, the chicken, the bed and the room.

If the boarding house is a physical place, with real inhabitants, documenting it reflects a long trend in South African photography. In 1932, the Carnegie Commission sponsored an enquiry into rural South Africa. Based on a similar model to the FSA project in the United States, where photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans made their names, the Carnegie Commission project consisted of photographers and writers traveling to rural parts of the country. They had a specific mandate, which was to investigate ‘the poor white problem.’ The images and text in the report caused a widespread outrage. It sparked a fear of racial miscegenation, through black people and white people sharing the low end of the economic scale, a fear that was the cornerstone of Apartheid.  But more so, the images showed what seemed to be a cultural degeneration. They showed not the noble poverty dear to any Protestant nation, but an abject destitution. It was dirty and mucky, and to any white who believed in the natural superiority and ability of their race, truly terrifying to see. This particular discomfort has been used for varying purposes by photographers, from the socially-motivated Constance Stuart Larrabee in the 40’s and 50’s, to the complex politics of Goldblatt in the 60’s. While Boarding House doesn’t exclusively comprise white people (many images are devoid of people, and a small minority show a black face), it almost certainly finds its roots in Ballen’s depictions of poor whites from his famous work in the 80’s and 90’s. Currently, there is resurgence in representations of the poor white in South Africa, from the documentary-style work of Finbarr O’Reilly through to the gleeful mockery of rappers Die Antwoord and Jack Parow, which points to a new interest in this discomfort.

However, the boarding house is also an imagined space. In Eulogy, there is a flatness in the picture, a lack of perspective that is typical of Ballen’s work.  Along with the theatricality of the pose, the artificial lighting and the scrawls on the wall, it points to a kind of aestheticisation. These are images made to be pictures, and no longer inhabit the measured world of the documentary. Ballen is taking the discomfort produced in the images mentioned above, and sublimating it into a metaphor for irrational fears. The images are almost emptied of people, in some only a dirty foot or finger protrudes into the picture, in others scrawlings on the wall or twisted wires imply a crazed human hand. The ‘poor white problem’ becomes a psychologically dark space, where Thanatos, the subconscious drive towards dissolution and death, rules over Eros. It becomes a nameless terror. This is Kurtz, whispering rather dramatically, “The horror, the horror.”

If, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Boarding House is an investigation of the darkness within the human psyche, or even the white person in Africa, then it is subject to similar criticisms. Chinua Achebe pointed out in his famous lecture on Heart of Darkness, that whole people are de-humanized in the novel, reduced to metaphors. Ballen talks of his subjects as collaborators, implying a relationship beyond what is immediately visible in the pictures. Nevertheless, there is a sense that people are being used in a somewhat uneven exchange.

Whether this is an element for concern, or a factor of most photography of people, this adds to a sense of discomfort. These are not easy images to look at and are challenging to think about. The question remains whether the discomfort is part of the photographer’s intention and he is poking inside my own subconscious, or whether they are politically ambiguous and problematic on multiple levels. My sense is that Boarding House falls neatly in between these two extremes.


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