See the Africa you never did in Roger Ballen’s stunning photos

  • Paramita Ghosh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 03, 2015 18:23 IST

The image out of Africa may still be of famine and war, but it is not ‘black’. Though Africa knows what it means to be Black. In South Africa, the country -- whose struggle against the Apartheid regime still has strong resonances in India due to a history of colonial rule -- skin colour was once a mark of civilisation.

National liberation in the ‘90s, however, gave one half of the population an identity; the other part, neurosis. Poor white South Africans, during and after Apartheid, were however, no one’s problem. It is this reality that Roger Ballen, an American artist who made Johannesburg his home in the ‘70s, has been photographing over the past 40 years.

Ballen was in Delhi for his exhibition at the Photoink gallery on till January 9, 2016. He also gave a talk at the ongoing Delhi Photo Festival.

Travelling around the ‘dorps’, the smaller towns of South Africa -- many of them mining towns -- he found a people going to the church, the butcher, the bank, stopping for sausages at a café, with a sense of disquiet at the growing change. In many of Ballen’s photographs you have people with shell-shocked faces, bent double, or punched out. Ballen also gives them play: in some of his post-2000 photographs, the artist and his subjects collaborate to put together a project of desolation, social and mental collapse. A kind of dying.

The photographs, currently exhibiting at the Photoink gallery, are from his series, Outland, Shadow Chamber and Asylum of the Bird. They are from the dorps, and from shanty towns close to Johannesburg where the poor white man and woman hangs loose at the fringes of society – a man with a bit of land, a boy with no education, or even a security guard guarding the shop of an Indian businessman. Naked bulbs, wires, scribbled wall drawings, tattered bedsheets, dolls with alarmed faces, keep them company. In Ballen’s photographs, these objects are given the respect of good taste and aesthetics.

As the Afrikaans rap-rave group Die Antwoord (their video, I Fink You Freeky draws from Ballen’s visuals), whose lyrics mainly talk to this community, says in an interview: “We are not white trash. It’s a cool thing. This is zef style. We see ourselves as fancy and sophisticated. It’s not trash.”

The near absence of the black African from his work, however, may seem a hole in Ballen’s work, into which critics have screamed ‘colour,’ ‘bias’ and ‘politics’. Ballen says it is about timing and the aim of his art. At the time he was photographing these places, “you couldn’t show Black areas,” he says. He is working on a new book on the community now.

What does he think of Nelson Mandela? Would he have liked to take his picture? It’s the one question Ballen does not directly answer. For the rest, read the interview.

Read: A glimpse of Mahmoud Farshchian’s works

In America, you were a geologist. But Africa turned you into a photographer?

I took to photography as a young man in the late ‘60s. My mother was very passionate about her job, she was a photo editor at Magnum, so it was a natural progression. Then I decided to become a geologist and I thought I could do that and also take pictures. I travelled for five years in between Cairo and Cape Town in the ‘70s, finally moving to Johannesburg in 1982. So it was travel that brought me to South Africa.

And you didn’t go back?

I got married there.

In the pictures, we see a South Africa we haven’t seen. But some might say this is just poor-white-South-Africa photography. It shows that it’s too black for the whites.

These photographs go beyond poverty. Not all of them are poor; they could even have been made in India. I see them as a visual archetype of the human condition transformed through the Roger Ballen aesthetic. Not everything is political. I didn’t make these photographs with that consideration.

‘Five Hands’ (2006) from the series, Asylum of the Birds. (Roger Ballen and PHOTOINK)

How do you find your subjects?

Finding subjects is not difficult. After finding them, it’s about what you do next. You have to look at a picture from a holistic point of view. The face is important but so is a man’s shirt pocket. Everything in the picture has equal value.

From the 2000s, many of your photographs are people without faces. You see them wear masks, people with their heads sunk into their knees. Why?

I’ve used a lot of drawings, installations, animals, and yes, no face. It was a movement away from portraiture. I wanted new challenges. I found other realities to portray my art. Why did I do that? Well, I can’t play basketball forever or I might not be good at it anymore. Or I might want to be a footballer or take up cricket. It’s the same thing.

Your photographs are difficult to look at. Yet your projects are the result of long periods of gestation. How could you look at such material for so long?

Well, people are people. Some are still very good friends. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have lasted a day in those places.

‘Take Off’ (2012) from the series, Asylum of the Birds. (Roger Ballen and PHOTOINK )

Why does the Black African find so little space in your work? National liberation struggles, as we know from our own experience, do not deliver equality, financial equality less so, for all people. So it must have been for the Blacks.

In the Apartheid regime, you couldn’t photograph Black areas. And the places I took my camera to, there weren’t so many of them. I’m now working on a book project on them.

There’s a photograph of a Black African throwing his arms wide so much so that he almost erases the man, sitting next to him, a white African, out of the picture.

I look at a lot of photographs made by Indian photographers and I don’t understand them. In them, I look for a certain quality – what impact does it have on me visually. In them, I don’t see one caste system looking at another caste system.

The violence in the pictures ironically makes you want to look at them again. They look terrifying. South Africa, one hears, is still a very violent society. Is the violence an Apartheid-era leftover?

That happened more than 20 years ago. You can’t blame your parents for everything. At some point you have to take control. It’s true the violence could be the remnant of Apartheid and things can’t be remedied overnight. There are lots of things that are worse now. Not everything is the fault of Apartheid.

‘Onlooker’ (2010) from the series, Outland. (Roger Ballen and PHOTOINK )

Have you photographed the Indian community?

In the ‘70s, I was in India. This is my first trip to the country after 40 years. Some of the India pictures are in my first photobook, Boyhood. In Darjeeling, I took a photograph with a slingshot shooting a bird. And also of a young boy and girl looking affectionately at each other next to a god of love.

Have you ever shot Nelson Mandela?

I took a photograph of his prison cell after he came out of jail. I have never been asked to shoot Mandela.

Did you want to?

I’m not a magazine or documentary photographer. I do not document the political world for mass media. I’ve no interest in taking a photograph of Mandela smiling and shaking people’s hands.

The exhibition, Roger Ballen Works 1995-2015 is on at Photoink gallery till Jan 9, 2016.


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