The Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb


Roger Ballen: Land of Shadows

MSU Gallery, September 6th – September 22nd 2016.

In the selection of photographic work of Roger Ballen imagination and reality are interwoven, and he inserts found objects, his own drawings, collages and sculptures thus creating unique and remarkable works that resist unambiguous interpretation.

Ballen was born in New York in 1950, but has worked in South Africa for over thirty years where his work as a geologist first led him. At first he photographed the deserted South African towns, but upon meeting with the population that inhabits them he started creating his artistic vocabulary out of what would to a superficial observer seem like socially engaged criticism to the photographic psychodrama, as he likes to call his more recent works.

For nearly fifty years he has been taking pictures, and he says that his process had always been fundamentally psychological. „Therefore, I never considered myself a social, political or cultural photographer. It has always been about exploring the psyche of the human condition and I guess of the living planet, as well as trying to come to terms with my identity. I think the nature of my photography is fundamentally not only psychological, but existential. I worked as a geologist for nearly thirty years all over Africa and I guess that has had some influence on my photography. “

His work is hard to describe in one word because it is simultaneously time about the ugly and the beautiful, funny and disturbing, grotesque and lyrical, mysterious and astounding. He says: "It's difficult to link these pictures to any particular society. These pictures are, in a way, the landscapes of the inner mind. The real problem in photography these days is total oversaturation of imagery. It's very difficult to create imagery that the mind, the inner mind, has not seen, that the inner mind feels challenged by. Just because one creates an image that no one has seen yet, it doesn't mean that this image will challenge the inner mind, the subconscious mind. I can easily tell when the inner mind has been challenged. It's the moment when people tell me how disturbing my photographs are. It means it already happened! These pictures must be doing something, because I keep on hearing the same word over and over again: disturbing. This is people's defense mechanism, of course. So, the observer is trying to figure out why something is uncanny, what is going on in the world created or portrayed. Ultimately, what is disturbing is the fact that my images are eliciting a subconscious reaction that the observer is quite insecure about. It's liberating repression;very Freudian...I would say that the best pictures leave you in silence. I don't find my photographs disturbing. Recently, during a lecture I held in South Africa I heard the criticism that my pictures are disturbing. I answered: Well, life is very disturbing. Do you know that? “

Many curators and journalists are questioning his work ethics regarding his approach to marginalized communities, accusing him exploiting them although he repeatedly stated that he can live with himself considering engaging the communities he is photographing: „I am working in complex, dangerous, unstable and unsafe environments. South Africa is a very violent place. If I didn't have a very good relationship with the people I am photographing, I wouldn't last a day in those places. So, that speaks for itself. Just by that, it means there is a mutual relationship. You don't want a relationship going bad in those places because you would be in serious problems. You could be beaten and your camera stolen. I get along with most people and I understand and respect the people I work with and they respect me. Most of the people I work with are my best friends and I don't have any issues. It's other people's issues that are being imposed on me. Those critics don't have any idea about anything that I do. The truth is that I'm transforming the world in a very specific way. Nobody takes pictures like Roger Ballen. My photographs are not necessarily about the subjects but rather about the way I perceive the world.“

And the way Roger Ballen perceives the world is really unique and provocative, for some perhaps invidious because it upsets some taboos, undermines the prejudices and superstitions, by aesthetics undermining ethics:„Politicians, armies, governments do certain things in the world and they are considered normal and sane. The issue of normality is all mixed up and skewed. People would say that the persons in my photographs are deranged but they would never refer to their president, members of parliament or economic structures as insane. So, yes, my pictures are challenging the issue of normality. “

In 1994 when he published a book Platteland, images from the South African countryside, he was ostracized and attacked on every level, and received even death threats because he „showed a group of white people in South Africa as alienated, not coping with the reality or functioning according to the norms.” So I broke the dogma or stereotype of the white rural population in South Africa during apartheid. I merely presented aspects of the human condition and never claimed to be a political photographer. Nevertheless, the media interpreted the pictures as political. In the mid-90's South Africa was at the center of media interest and it was a convenient way of interpreting Platteland. “

However, it had only been an incentive to work even further. After publishing a book Outland in 2000, he became widely recognized on the world art scene, exhibited and traveled increasingly and, in the end, completely dedicated himself to photography.

Leila Topić, curator

About the artist

Born in New York 1950, Roger Ballen has been based in Johannesburg, South Africa since the early 1980s. The photographer studied psychology at the University of California, and later his PhD at the Colorado School of Mines, specializing in Mineral Economics. Ballen was originally drawn to South Africa to work as a geologist, but his enthusiasm for photography strengthened, and he has been taking images there for more than thirty years.

Ballen's first venture into photography during his college years was primarily politically and socially oriented, with a photojournalistic angle. This outlook continued into his preliminary works taken in South Africa, as seen in his book Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa (1994). With an empathetic and journalistic attitude, Ballen portrayed white people living on the margins of society in remote rural towns. These striking works broke a lot of taboos and were met with hesitance by the public. In 2013 he commented, "When it was published, I was subject to a lot of accusations. I was considered a whistleblower like Edward Snowden at the time."

He later found himself becoming part of a community who lived within a three-storey warehouse in Johannesburg. Inhabited by those on the fringes of society - poor workers, witchdoctors, criminals, isolated individuals and animals - Ballen built a rapport during his frequent, often daily visits, and was able to photograph and record their primitive conditions. These powerful images were published in subsequent books Shadow Chamber (2005) and Boarding House (2009).

Over the past thirty years his distinctive style of photography has evolved using a simple square format in stark and beautiful black and white. In the earlier works in the exhibition his connection to the tradition of documentary photography is clear but through the 1990s he developed a style he describes as ‘documentary fiction’. After 2000 the people he first discovered and documented living on the margins of South African society increasingly became a cast of actors working with Ballen in the series’ Outland and Shadow Chamber collaborating to create powerful psychodramas.

In 2012 Ballen collaborated on the music video 'I Fink U Freeky' with South African group Die Antwoord; the photographer's input is indisputable. He had known the group for a number of years, and a mutual admiration slowly formed. They initially worked together in 2010, when Ballen's drawings were integrated into one of their videos. Things progressed and he soon directed their music video; 'I Fink U Freeky' propelled the group to new levels of recognition and has been viewed tens of millions of times online, and can be viewed here.

He has had over fifty exhibitions worldwide, and his work is represented in many museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2013 the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution presented a major retrospective of his work, to critical acclaim.

Warning: You are currently viewing the simplified version of this site. Please download and install Flash Player to view the full version.