In a square black-and-white photograph measuring 40×40 centimetres, a man is captured lying on a bed looking up at the ceiling with his arms above his head creating a makeshift pillow. His bare torso displays a pronounced ribcage while his pants are rolled up to the knee in a child-like manner and his legs dangle off the bed. A naked light bulb hangs precariously over him like the sword of Damocles dividing the stark composition into earth and sky while creating a kind of visual tension. His pained expression conveys to the viewer that this is not a moment of idle leisure but one of great despair.
In another frame a portly man is seen cradling a full-grown pig while seated on a bed. He holds the creature covered in mud as close as one would cuddle a stuffed toy. We learn his name is Brian and even though he appears to be looking at the viewer his gaze turns inward into some land of contemplation that we can only make a guess at. In a third composition, a man draws chalk faces on the wall staring right at the viewer as if daring them to guess who it is that he has drawn. Since the drawings are rudimentary stick figures with torrid expressions, the viewer is once again not let into this private world where cats, puppies and pigs share equal space with the humans who are inhabitants of this commune in South Africa.
These startlingly incongruent photographs belong to a series, titled Outland (late 1990s–2001) by artist-photographer Roger Ballen, 65. Currently visiting India to attend his solo exhibition hosted at Devika Daulet-Singh’s newly located Photoink Gallery in the suburbs of South Delhi, Ballen who is over six feet tall with a gravelly voice and penetrating gaze could well have walked off the sets of a Clint Eastwood Western. However, it is not the popcorn thrillers that inspire the senior photographer but the plays of Samuel Beckett. An American born in New York, Ballen travelled intensively during his early boyhood and is now settled in Johannesburg in South Africa. His work is part of important collections like the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art New York, to name a few. He is both controversial and celebrated for his body of works that deal mostly with mentally- challenged white South Africans.
These are photographs one was not prepared to see for there is nothing picturesque or pleasing to the eye. Instead these are deeply disturbing portraits of a marginalised segment of society that most prefer to forget. It is that dark psychographic landscape that you sweep under the carpet or like a forgotten jar of pickles that lie in the cupboard, collecting mould.
“These images of poor white people in Johannesburg are more of an archetypal class. First off, there are others who have photographed them before, but more in a sociological way. The manner in which I photographed them is more psychological, more penetrating, so hopefully a lot of what I did was because of how I did it. That is why the pictures had more of an impact,” says Ballen, adding, “It is how you transform the image to make something penetrating and lasting. When I find someone interesting I am only five percent there, it depends on what I am going to do with them, it’s about how I’m going to make a lasting picture that people all over the world will be transformed by. I get into people’s heads and that is why they find these images very disturbing psychologically,” says Ballen.
Creating these images also drew a fair amount of criticism, for many read them as an exploitation of the mentally challenged inmates. A criticism, which he was not prepared for. “The whole society turned against me and I was left only with one friend—Leroy, my border collie. People felt threatened by what they saw. As for the exploitative nature of these works, a photograph of a mother crying over her dead son may also be seen as exploitative and yet we often find these images in newspapers without much consequence,” says Ballen. “Take for instance if I photograph a beautiful woman but she does not like the way I made her look in the photograph and if I show it to others they may say ‘oh she is pretty’, but that woman may feel that I exploited her and made her look a way she was unhappy with. So in photography there are a lot of grey areas.”
Interestingly though, in his recent set of works created in 2010 onwards, titled Asylum of the Birds, the people have retreated to the background and we only glimpse them as a hand or a foot. The drawings and installations created by the inmates take centre stage. Pigeons have replaced the puppies and pigs, and in these works each photograph captures the essence of a trapped bird yearning for flight. Each composition appears more like a tableaux of dark symbols that hint toward the psychological state of the inmates of the asylum and the birds. Both do not experience the outside world but live in the asylum. In some frames, Ballen has even worked with the carcasses of dead birds. The deliberate mise en scène that sets the sombre mood in each photograph possesses a staged quality and one wonders, how much of this was planned.
“I never plan any of my photographs… I never know what I am going to take, I just get there first. I always work with what I have at the moment, and there is usually something there, a mark or a drawing that triggers off a link in my mind and I make a photograph of it,” says Ballen.
For Ballen, photography is not like painting or writing a novel for it is a physical presentation of the world. “It can be based on your imagination but you have to work with reality and what is believable because at the end of the day photography has a documentary feel to it… In a sense I see myself as a visual organiser and the picture I make is about how I transform the world visually through my mind and my camera. It is important that I transform things differently than what other people would do. Like Picasso or Dostoyevsky, it’s important that you transform the world around you and separate yourself from other people, to have an impact. That is half the journey,” he says.
Ballen divides these works into three periods, the first was the ‘portraiture period’, specific to Outland which featured photographs of people with wires, markings and some objects, then beginning in 2003, is the ‘intermediate stage’ where you still have portraits of the people with their drawings and in the last the people are replaced by painting drawing, installations, and lot more birds and animals. “You arrive at things step by step. There has to be a slow build up…you cannot make complex statements without any substance,” he says.
Ballen in a sense was born into photography, for his mother worked for Magnum photographs with the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Cortez. Surrounded by their works and with frequent visits to art galleries in the 60s and 70s, the love for photography rubbed off on him. Ballen was gifted his first camera in 1968, a Nikon for graduation. “I took pictures in the 70s that I am still quite proud of,” says Ballen. He left home at the age of 18 after his mother died in 1973. He travelled to Cairo, South Africa, China and India, by bus, camel, donkey, boat and by foot. He produced his first photo book Boyhood during this time in 1977. After which he did a doctorate in Geology and then returned to South Africa in 1982. He then produced his most important body of work and several photo books henceforth.
“I have visited Delhi in the 70s and at the time there were fewer cars, no air conditioning and everyone travelled on cycles, in carts and on foot. Now everyone has a car and the city is not quite ready for that. These roads were not built for that much traffic,” he observes as we drive toward British Council to attend the Delhi Photo Festival opening night party. When asked about other photographers’ work, Ballen does not come up with names of his favourites. He would rather concentrate on talking about his own work, which he lives and breathes. “I do feel though that many Indian photographers are still caught up in ethnographic or sociological photography— they have not taken it to the next level.”
Working on film with a 35-year-old 6×6 Rolleiflex camera, Ballen continues to be ‘sentimental about film as a medium’. He does have a Leica Monochrom, a black-and-white digital camera, but he places a higher value on images shot on film and printed as silver gelatin prints. “I belong to the last generation of photographers who worked with film but I have to be honest and say that the belief that film is superior to digital is no longer true. I can make pigment prints that are as good as silver prints and it is not as expensive. Though I keep my series intact, if I have worked with silver print I continue the series in silver print. These days the collector base, which is much wider than before, has changed. Most collectors do not really care if it’s silver or pigment prints, for they are more interested in the content. The traditional photo collectors, and there are fewer of those, will prefer silver prints because no two prints are ever the same and in a sense unique,” he says.
Making the leap from still to moving image, Ballen is one of the few senior photographers to be involved in the making of a music video. I Fink U Freeky, a collaboration with Die Antwoord in 2012, went viral on YouTube and was viewed by about 75 million people. The disturbing video, shot in black-and- white, keeps the photographer’s stark and disturbing aesthetics intact.
“The music video was a big boost to my career. It is thrilling to know that over 75 million people became familiar with my aesthetic and this is a great expansion of my work. The thing I have learnt from Freeky is that the power of video is much bigger and it reaches wider audiences, people who will also get interested in the photo books. But I see it as a parallel artwork. It’s not a video used to advertise my other artwork and has in fact led me to make other video-works,” says Ballen who went on to make Asylum of the Birds as a short film that admittedly was not as popular or widely viewed.
Was Ballen at all worried about the populist tag a music video would bring to his works? “I am not crazy about what people think. I exploit poor people, I exploit animals, I destroy nature, I am a pop photographer… it just goes on. You do what you can do. As long as you feel comfortable with the trade-off you go ahead with it. What is important about the video is that my aesthetics were not compromised. It’s not some lovey-dovey, kissy, sex-and-violence video. I think it reached people because it had a deeper aesthetic meaning that separated it from the other videos. I do not feel like I have aligned myself with pop.”
Ballen believes that younger photographers have a hard task ahead of them with everyone taking photographs with digital and the images being disseminated on Facebook and other social media. “I can’t really say what will happen. There will be technological changes; whether people will be producing images with deeper meaning I cannot say, it takes a certain mentality and depth. Technology will continue to improve and change but that alone will not make people better photographers.”
(‘Roger Ballen: Works 1995-2015’ is on view at the Photoink gallery, New Delhi, till 9 January 2016)