IN A SCENE FROM THE SIX-MINUTEFILMAsylum of the Birds, the photographer Roger Ballen adjusts the limbs of his subject: a man holding a squirming bird in one hand, and wearing a mask with a dead bird pasted to the mouth. “Look at me, turn your head around, down, down, down,” he mutters, framing his shot, and it’s unclear whether he’s addressing the man or the bird. In 2014, Ballen released the film alongside a photo series of the same title. Both works were shot in the same crumbling house on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and feature the kinds of highly staged images typical of the photographer’s recent style.
Ballen’s composition process has not always been so complex. An American who has lived in South Africa since 1982, he first received wide acclaim in 1994, for Platteland, a series of black-and-white portraits of impoverished white people living under apartheid. There, his subjects assume natural poses, and often stare squarely into the camera. Afterwards, Ballen continued photographing similar subjects, but his relationship to them took on a quality of directorial staging, a dynamic he described as “almost a theatre of the absurd.” This culminated, in 2001, in the series Outland. With its unflinching intimacy, poor white subjects, and consistent formal conventions, the work may resemble Platteland. However, Ballen said, Outland’s theatrical compositions mark his transition from a documentary photographer to “an artist photographer.”
From there, he staged and manipulated his scenes even more intensely, often flirting with the abstract. Portraiture “wasn’t challenging me anymore,” he said, “so I moved on to other aspects of myself.” Ballen sometimes strayed from human subjects in favour of animals and inanimate objects. He composed images with layers of detail, including drawings on the walls and sculpture-like installations in the background. The resulting photographs, according to Ballen, are “much more elaborate and difficult to define” than his earlier ones. Shadow Chamber, a series published in 2005, exemplifies this development.