“My Goal Is To Transform Psyches”: An Interview with Roger Ballen

10 November 2015
Portrait of Roger Ballen. Photograph by Marguerite Rossouw.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROGER BALLEN AND PHOTOINK
Portrait of Roger Ballen. Photograph by Marguerite Rossouw.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROGER BALLEN AND PHOTOINK

The third edition of the Delhi Photo Festival, held from 30 October to 8 November 2015 at the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts (IGNCA), brought together hundreds of photographers from within the country and abroad. On its second day, internationally acclaimed photographer Roger Ballen, known for his harrowing black and white portraits of marginalised white people in South Africa, delivered a talk that packed the IGNCA auditorium. Ballen, an American photographer who has been living in Johannesburg since 1982, discussed many of his works, some of which are also on display in a partial retrospective at the Photoink gallery in Delhi.

The retrospective, which is Ballen’s first show in India, reviews key images from three of his latest books: Outland (2001), Shadow Chamber (2005), and Asylum of the Birds (2014.) The dramatic changes in Ballen’s style, from conventional portraits to more abstract, conceptual works, are laid bare in the show, which will be up at Photoink until 9 January 2016. Aria Thaker, a copy editor at The Caravan, spoke with Ballen about his changing style, his reception in South Africa, and how psychology shapes his photography.

Aria Thaker: Your exhibition traces your work from Outland to Shadow Chamber to Asylum of the Birds. What trajectory can we see in your work through the juxtaposition of these three projects?

Roger Ballen: There was an early artistic stage, which was Outland, when I started to see myself as an artist. My relationship with the subjects was very much a theatrical one, almost a theater of the absurd. But the backgrounds weren’t as elaborate and there wasn’t drawing in the pictures. But there was some sort of artistic intervention between me and the subjects. So it was the beginning, in a way, of me seeing myself as an artist photographer. And in the latest work, the drawings predominate, the photographs are quite complex visually, and the work is much more elaborate and difficult to define. So in a way it shows the first time I started to see myself as an artist in 1995, contrasting that with the latest project called Asylum of the Birds, published in 2014.

"Take off," 2012 from the series, Asylum of the Birds. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROGER BALLEN AND PHOTOINK "Take off," 2012 from the series, Asylum of the Birds. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROGER BALLEN AND PHOTOINK
"Take off," 2012 from the series, Asylum of the Birds
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROGER BALLEN AND PHOTOINK

Aria Thaker is a journalist who reports on the intersection of technology and politics for Quartz India. She was formerly a copy editor at The Caravan.

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