Through a Lens, Darkly

The changing aesthetic of Roger Ballen

Ambivalence, 2003 Shadow Chamber {{name}}
01 December, 2015

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.

In his later work, Ballen moved yet further from the human form. By Asylum, if there were people in his photographs at all, they appeared as camouflaged figures, hidden from view save for disembodied limbs, or behind masks—as with the man in the film scene. The series also features other hallmarks of his later style: the drawings, the sculptural structures, the near-ubiquitous presence of animals. The images presented here—from Outland, Shadow Chamber and Asylum of the Birds, and drawn from an ongoing exhibition at the Photoink gallery in Delhi—showcase all these elements, as well as the evolution of Ballen’s distinct aesthetic.

After the Asylum short, Ballen produced a similar film to accompany a re-release of Outland. This video, like the earlier one, portrays the chaos of the locations where he works. The camera roves between humans, animals, and props—often zooming in uncomfortably close, far closer than in his photographs. “The videos are presented as somewhat documentary,” Ballen said, but they should be considered “parallel artworks,” because when viewed properly, “they extend my aesthetic on many different fronts.”

Ballen often speaks of “extending his aesthetic.” None of his work has been as influential in achieving that goal as his collaboration with the South African alternative rap group Die Antwoord. In 2012, he directed a music video for their song ‘I Fink U Freeky.’ It employs a visual language similar to that of his more recent series, particularly Asylum. Drawings cover the walls; rats and birds dart across shots; the members of Die Antwoord strike contorted poses. The video has been viewed on Youtube almost 75 million times, and Ballen is thrilled with this viral reception. “It extended my aesthetic into so many people’s heads,” he said. “I could have never done that with a book, never in a million years.”