New Yorker Roger Ballen was introduced to photography at the age of 13 when his mother started working as an editor at the Magnum Photo agency. After gaining a PhD in Geology at Berkeley in 1972 he fell in love with the natural beauty of South Africa and eventually settled there in 1982. His photography is incredibly dense and visceral, often documenting the social, financial and cultural impoverishment of its subjects in an unflinching manner.
You talk about your photographs as a psychological and existential journey, what has that journey taught you? Primarily that the focus of the work is to find who I am I guess. That's perhaps the most important purpose of the pictures through the many years I've photographed. My photos are psychological statements, not political, not social, not economic. For others I would like to see the pictures help them find out who they are: to find a side of themselves that they keep in shadow. The side they refer to as 'the dark side'.
What's the phrase you hear most about your photos from people? Many people say the photographs are disturbing or dark. I say from the dark comes the light. It's very easy to read people's depth of understanding of themselves by the depth of the comments they make. So they actually reveal themselves with their comments and most of the comments reveal an anxiety about who they are which we all have. But it's an anxiety ultimately to coming to grips with themselves. The dark and disturbing side is the side of themselves that they are nervous about. I thrive on finding the dark or hidden side of myself. When I find it it's bliss. It opens up all sorts of things. The best pictures are the ones you don't have words for, the ones that leave you in a state of silence. The pictures that leave you feeling there's something mysterious about what's out there. Then I guess the pictures have done their job. I don't feel that the pictures are disturbing, or beautiful or anything. They actually are what they are and the less words you can find for those pictures probably the better they are.
Do you find that you can work through your own anxieties while taking them or is it too much to conjure with at one time? When I take pictures I'm very, very focused on what's out there and trying to create an integrated whole. My pictures don't comprise one or two or three or four or five elements - they're integrating thousands of elements at one time so my goal ultimately is to create a very strong intense formal image. If I get it right the form is an integrated whole and then the meaning is implicit. I've created something alive. Ultimately what you want to do in a picture is create something alive, something that lives outside you and has its own history, its own essence and sensibility. Children ultimately leave the nest, that's how I like to think of a picture. When you start a photograph you don't know where it's going to lead. People ask me what do I think about before I take pictures. I try to think about nothing for two reasons: One, I want a silent, relaxed mind, like a cat waiting for the rat. Good photography is usually something to do with a momentary event and I can't predict that. I've a got to create the event, see the event and be aware of the event as it happens and sometimes the event is just the way the eye blinks or the way the person turns or the way the animal moves across the picture or the way the tail looks in relation to one of my drawings.
As you get more experienced at how to 'get results' does it become easier or harder to create something powerful? Well I must say that it doesn’t get any easier because as you get more experienced and as you go further you're trying to work with more complexity, and take more complexity and create more simplicity. Because you're older and hopefully experienced you see things as a larger whole so your job then becomes more difficult because you've got to synthesise all these many different points into a single reality - a photograph. So the job doesn't get any easier it gets more challenging. It's very important that the job is challenging because if it isn't you shouldn't be taking the picture. I have always taken pictures for myself from day one; I'm not a commercial photographer. I don't do things for the market. It's only been a personal endeavour for me. If the pictures don't find new areas of who I am or I become bored with what I'm doing then I have to give myself a rest. I shouldn't be repeating what I know already. My life is changing all the time and I should be finding ways of exploring the evolution of myself in one way or the other. It always comes naturally: one door somehow opens a door to the next. I don't really worry I just keep taking pictures and the pictures act as a signpost to the next picture. The pictures tell me where to go. I always ask students, how do you learn how to become a photographer? It's not going to class after class. You've got to find your own fingerprints, your own lines in the sand and that's best done by taking pictures. The pictures are a mirror to yourself.
Your mother worked for Magnum and you grew up surrounded by photographic imagery. Your eye for composition is probably unequalled, did that early exposure play a part? My biggest inspiration is nature. If you look at anything in nature - a tree or a plant or an animal or a human being, everything in the organism is there for a reason, it’s a complete whole. So for me what's important is that there's a total unity between every little aspect in a picture. Regarding composition I was very influenced by the work of Paul Strand. He used a very big (sometimes square) format camera and his pictures were very tight, very, very formalistic in their own way. I think Walker Evans in some way did too, especially around the period 1982-1986. That was the first time I really became obsessed with composition. André Kertész was most important for me in that he revealed that photography could be art. He referred to his pictures as quixotic, or enigmatic, puzzling. Especially his later work. That was important for me - to understand that photography could go further than just a document.
Are you aware you might view day-to-day life in a significantly different way than others do? What do you see, sitting in this café for instance? It's a very hard question because I don't know how other people see the world. But if I want I can multi-task if you want to put it that way. Sitting here I'm concentrating on the food I'm eating but if you say, 'Make a picture here Roger, how would you make a picture here, what would you do?' Then my brain goes into the mode very quickly. I often think of the Clark Kent Superman programmes I watched in the Fifties. He would be a normal person working at a newspaper then he would go into another room and become Superman. Well that's what I do nearly every day. In the morning I do the administration, meet people. When it gets to 12 o'clock everyday I put my cameras in my car and go off into a completely weird surreal world and then, when that's finished, I return to a formalistic lifestyle. I've been doing this for decades and decades now so I don't even need to push a button inside Roger's mind. It's self-automated. I don't understand the process one drop - I don't have an idea. It's just there all the time. So if you said to me make a photo in this place. I would somehow have to use my mind to find a way to create an intensity. I may all of a sudden be sitting here and remember an image from a restaurant in Afghanistan in 1973 that appears in my mind that somehow or another belongs in that chair as part of the photograph, or I may see something on the table there that fits tonally or in some other way with what's there. It's just impossible to understand how someone's mind works. I mean, who's telling me what to say now? Where's it all coming from? You can't get to the bottom of it, it's multi dimensional. When I give talks I sometimes start by saying: Where did it all start? Did I start when I came out of my mother's stomach? Did I start in my mother's stomach? Did I start somewhere else? Where is the beginning? Think of it biologically, scientifically. The beginning started two billion years ago when life began on the planet. So you're just an accumulation of that. And there were periods I guess where there was quasi life - a virus perhaps - so you're even before that.
Is the desire to incorporate drawings and installation into your photography a frustration with the fact that human or animal subjects can only tell part of the story? Well, the thing is my pictures are an interesting integration between installation, sculpture, and so as installations or as drawings they would be interesting or revealing in some way but they wouldn't have the same impact as they do transformed through a photograph. The photograph grounds them in the 'real'. Whereas the drawings they're just products of Roger's imagination. They could be classified in terms of an art movement the drawings have similarities to Art Brut. They're drawn by children, the insane, marginals. But we see that all the time. You can go to a children's class and see drawings that have some resemblance, you can look at graffiti. But what I do, and I think it's unique in it's own way, and it took me nearly 50 years to get there, is to integrate the drawing and the painting and the other thing through the camera because ultimately what you're seeing is a photograph of drawings, of what happened out there. It's also to me a place that's been transformed in two ways. One through the camera, two through a mind. But it is still a place. It's an entity. So there is a triangle there: camera, Roger's imagination and what's out there. And they interact in some way. So I think I've been able to add a new level, a new important format to what I do through the addition of drawings to the pictures. But they still ultimately are photographs. You can't separate them from being photographs. Photography is a tool it's a key. In the last five or so years I've also used drawing and painting and a bit of video as a key. I'm very fortunate that I've found a tool that works for me. There are not that many tools for people to find.
You revel in revealing the dirt on people, is that form of photographic light and shade symptomatic of something else? The one thing I can't talk about is the meaning because the meaning isn't verbal, secondly it's multi-dimensional, and thirdly I don't actually know all the dimensions myself. The best ones are ahead of me. I haven't grasped or grown into them yet. I wouldn't know what they're about. But I know deep down there's something (in those pictures). The ones that I know deep down are good I can't say anything about. Those are challenging for me they're the growth points they're the arrow points that propel me.
You don't shoot outside of South Africa anymore, why? I'm not focused I'm thinking about things and I won't take good pictures. I'll be wasting my time. I've got thousands of pictures already. Better to focus on what's important here right now. I've always said the planet is the stage but now I go back to the same nail on the wall and try and drive it deeper and deeper each time - or the same mark or crevice, or the same mark and go underneath it, get on the other side of the wall. My whole modus operandi has changed. I'm working in a space that's a mirror to my own mind. A good fisherman goes back to the same hole all the time; a good baseball player uses the same bat.
How did your latest project Asylum come into being? When I was working on the Boarding House project I found a space in Johannesburg, a big house that sort of reminded me of the house in the Hitchcock movie Pyscho. I went over to this place and there were people from all walks of life living in it. It was a place near some mine dumps. This man would let people stay there. They had to pay him they went out and did different jobs, sometimes the house was full of people sleeping on the floor. The man was a real lover of animals, especially birds and this man had maybe a couple of hundred birds in the garage - pigeons mainly. He kept them inside too and he allowed them to fly around the house. I was really intrigued cos I had taken pictures of birds before. And I started working in this place. The people would keep the birds as pets. So I've always been obsessed by animals and I've taken pictures of animals for many years. So I continued to do that in this series Asylum but mostly birds. Every picture in the new series has a bird in it whether it's a feather or a drawing of a bird or a flying bird - there are birds in every shot. So it's been a really interesting five years in this place. A bird is never easy to shoot. Firstly they don't listen, secondly they get nervous, thirdly they fly and also what is also interesting, believe it or not, they start getting used to you. If you put them in the pictures you need to take the pictures at the beginning because that's when they're looking around. Their eyes and bodies are moving, they're all moving, they're nervous. After five or so minutes they get a little more secure than they start to prune themselves! They start pecking themselves. And then they start to turn their heads and pull out their feathers. And they even get more bored and start closing their eyes and falling asleep so you lose the energy in the picture. So believe it or not the nervousness of the birds sometimes leads to a better photograph than when they get comfortable.