'They speak about the shadow side; the underside of the human experience': Roger Ballen

The American-born photographer on the processes behind six of his later images - and his insatiable interest in the 'human condition'
Roger Ballen, Twirling wires (2001)

1 / 6 Roger Ballen, Twirling wires (2001)

Roger Ballen, Rejection (2003)

2 / 6 Roger Ballen, Rejection (2003)

Roger Ballen, Bewildered (2003)

3 / 6 Roger Ballen, Bewildered (2003)

Roger Ballen, Juxtaposed (2004)

4 / 6 Roger Ballen, Juxtaposed (2004)

Roger Ballen, Pathos (2005)

5 / 6 Roger Ballen, Pathos (2005)

Roger Ballen, Bite (2007)

6 / 6 Roger Ballen, Bite (2007)

Since coming to prominence in the early '90s, Roger Ballen has come to be associated with a singular docu-art style of photography which focuses predominantly on the dispossessed white population of modern South Africa. As his latest one man show - at the Stenersen Museum in Oslo (until January 23) - comes to end, he spoke to Phaidon.com about the processes behind six of his later images, how his work has evolved from the time it was a private hobby to entering the public mainstream, and what the future holds.  


Twirling Wires (2001, Shadow Chamber)

This photograph is one of my most famous photographs. It’s also one of my favourite. I took it during a transitional period, when I was integrating subjects with drawings and objects in the picture. It’s always very difficult for me to express the true meaning of a picture but I feel there’s something very deep here about the human condition. I found the man in Twirling Wires living right on the edge of the Shadow Chamber building [the location of many of Ballen's images 2000-4]. He was living in a small abandoned farm house. I took this picture within an hour or so of meeting this person, and then I left and went overseas. When I came back I asked about him and they said he’d been found dead in that building and had been dead for nearly three weeks before anybody found him there.

The wires in this particular image were used to make barbed wire fences. They'd been left in a bundle in the house. The issue of wires in my photographs is a very complicated one. Wires are very metaphoric in many ways. What do the wires actually mean? On one side they're formalistic; the wires are used to tie the picture together. If you look at the work of the painter Miro there's lots of little black lines. In his paintings we accept those as having abstract formal meaning. It’s the same with my wires. But because they’re photographs and because they’re taken as objects in the world they also mean something as objects. We have to somehow link those formal qualities with the meaning of the content to find our own meaning for the wires in these pictures.


Rejection (2003, Shadow Chamber)

The Shadow Chamber Building was a building built in the early part of the century in Johannesburg, originally as a place where miners would stay. There were three floors and two basement floors and people lived in these little rooms off these corridors. The reason it is called the Shadow Chamber is that there was no electricity in this building so there was always a sense of darkness in this place. 

Rejection was a very revolutionary photograph for me. It was the first time I was able to integrate painting and sculpture with photography. You can see it contains all sorts of interesting visual images and all sorts of figures and wires and bits of metal. it’s not quite clear where those pieces came from but they’re very well integrated into the picture. The drawings and paintings in the images were either there for a long period of time or created as I was trying to take the picture, or I might have added something one way or the other. So I guess in a way the drawings and the paintings on the wall came about as a result of my interaction in the place and with the people in the place. But ultimately the drawings and paintings on the wall are only part of the picture. If you were to take a picture of the drawings on their own they’d be very different photographs than the ones you see in Boarding House. My pictures aren’t just imitations of drawings and paintings they’re transformations. I’m taking those aspects of the reality in front of me and transforming them photographically to other means to create other realities that are beyond just the realities of that place. 

Where does the photography start and where does it end? Well, what i feel is most important in all my pictures is that they always say something about photography. Photography is about catching a special moment, it’s about freezing time. It’s a way of telling you that no moment can ever be the same. If you look at this picture carefully you can see that special moment is when the cat looks down at the bear on the floor. If you look at the mattress you see fingers holding the mattress in all sorts of ways. That’s also about catching time and something that can’t be repeated. 


Bewildered (2003, Boarding House)

During the time I was involved at the Shadow Chamber building I found another building in the early 2000s. The building wasn’t that far from the Shadow Chamber building. It was next to the same group of mine dumps that proliferate through the Johannesburg landscape. The Boarding House was an old warehouse where the mines used to store machinery, rope, dynamite etc. During the late ‘90s people started to live in this building. It was a place they ate, slept and then moved on. It had many different types of people in it: children, old people, murderers, robbers, people who’d failed in business; it had cats, sheep, ducks, insects - a congolomeration of many things. In a way it was a modern-day Noah’s Ark.

Bewildered depicts one of the black people who stayed in the boarding house. People usually associate my photographs with white people but over the last ten years I’ve photographed black people, white people, Indians, all sorts of races. This man had come from one of the tribes, but he'd worked in the mines and got hurt and ended up in the boarding house. There were all sorts of chickens running around and the man wanted me to take a picture of the chickens but was scared of the camera. He pushed the little chick in front of him and then picked up the propeller so I wouldn’t be able to photogaph his face. What is quite interesting is that the form of the propellor mirros the teeth of the form above, so the propeller helped to make the photograph unified. There are hearts, besides the drawings on the wall. I don’t know exactly how they got there. I don’t know how a lot of things got on the walls of this house, they just ended up being there and I incorporated them somehow. Everything means something however - I will never allow anything in my pictures that feels out of place. 


Juxtaposed (2004, Shadow Chamber)

Juxtaposed will ultimately become a very important photograph in my career. I’m currently involved in a new project taking pictures of birds. I found a place quite near the boarding house, in Johannesburg, which is literally chock-full of birds, living with the people. The picture that I took here is one of the first bird photos I took. What interests me about this photograph is that we find something tied up between the wing of that bird and the feet. In some way the wing of that bird and those feet come from something similar, in eveolution, that we can’t put our finger on. All my photographs are an interaction between what people do in the spur of the moment. What you see is 1/500th of a second of reality. These pictures are taken at such a shutter speed that a bullet would be frozen in the air. So what you see is a figment of reality. Whether I told people to do one thing and they did another - or I told them to do something and they did something else - is quite immaterial. They did what they did, I saw what they did and the camera transformed what they did into something else but the transformation wasn’t complete without something else going on in the picture. The feet in this picture juxtapose just one small part of this picture. I’m now 60 years old and I can honestly say that my way of taking pictures hasn’t changed at all. 


Pathos (2005, Boarding House)

Pathos is a very powerful photograph. When I walked into the boarding house there was this monkey sitting on a mattress. The monkey belonged to the person who ran the boarding house. A big man, he weighed nearly 180-200 kgs and he was built like a brick wall. Nobody wanted to speak against this man. If they spoke against this man that would probably be the last time they ever spoke. Nobody dared touch this monkey. And he was very pleased to have me photograph this monkey. When I look at this monkey I think of the human condition. That’s why I called this photograph 'Pathos'. There’s something sad in this monkey. There’s something that speaks about who we are and some fundamental pain that we carry around with us. Something that we experience inside. It’s something sad, something piercing, something almost tragic. 

People make all sorts of rationalisations as to why they find these pictures disturbing. I think people find it disturbing because they’re scared of looking at themselves and finding out who they are. I don’t necessarily know if it’s so easy to put a word to why people feel this or feel that. Might be reasons that have something to do with their childhood. There might be something deep inside most people’s minds that relates to these pictures in some way. I don’t believe that the pictures disturb people because they see poverty or the social condition. I think it’s more of an excuse about why people see these pictures as disturbing. If you live in a big city poverty is all around you. I think they’re disturbed because these images bring up certain things in their mind that they’re scared to recognise in certain ways. It’s not necessarily a very easy job to put your finger on those things.


Bite (2007, Boarding House)

There was a snake on this boy’s bed that was owned by some other boy and the first boy said 'I bet I can put my finger in his mouth and I bet he won’t bite me'. So everyone challenged this boy. The boy that owned the snake held the back of the tail of the snake the snake raised its head and the boy put his finger in its mouth - and the snake bit it. When the snake bit it the boy screamed a bit and pulled his hand out. His finger was bleeding very badly and there was blood all over the floor, so I had my assistant take him to hospital and they put a stitch in his finger. What’s also interesting in this photograph are the wires of the phone above. This is a formalistic photograph in that the wires mirror the form of the snake so there’s a relationship between the two. How they relate and why they mean something I’m not quite clear, but I know they mean something. I’ve always said the best photographs are the ones I don’t have a word for. They’re openly the ones I don’t understand. 

These photographs do speak about the shadow side, the underside of the human experience. Not the evil side, just the shadow side. The side we don’t want to be let open, the side we’re a bit scared to talk about. The shadow side has always been an interesting thing for me. I’ve always been interested in finding out more about myself, in finding out more about the deeper, hidden sides of human nature. This hidden side is very mysterious, it’s very poetic, it’s full of energy. It’s not so scary to me. If I can find this shadow side and am able relate to it and express it, it doesn’t scare me so much. It gives me lots of energy. 

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