Subtle appeal of grey tones (Bettina Hennig)

Posted on January 15, 2008


Subtle appeal of grey tones

The art of South African photographer Roger Ballen

An approach by Bettina Hennig


Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen


 His appearance calls to mind a Samuel Beckett character. He is lean and skinny in his tight black trousers. The white knitted jumper has some type of rustic braided pattern, the high-voltage sheen of which suggests it is made out of something aggressively artificial. Roger Ballen, in fact, looks nothing like your typical photographer endlessly shuttling between New York, Miami, Basel and Shanghai leaving a
trail of awards in his wake.

He has the exacting habits of some sort of civil servant – a curious blend of social correctness and lack of worldly perspective. He’s like Beckett on a daytrip.

Skew mask, 2001

Skew mask, 2001

Is this a conscious decision? One should always assume so with Roger Ballen! You can see he’s a master of stagecraft; so much so that when you are in his company you are constantly reminded of his art. Lost in thought, he strokes his chin. His eyes glimmer, and momentarily, only the whites can be seen. When he finally fixes his gaze upon you, he remains silent. It seems like a mini ice age has passed before he answers the first question.

“You’re right!” he says in a quiet voice. “There is nothing coincidental with what I do. Every picture is thought our in its detail and each element which you can find in them has the same importance as the other elements”.

Do you have a concrete example of that?

“Yes. That is probably the reason why I favour the square as a format. A rectangular form would mean that the horizontal would be more important than the vertical”.

That is very well thought out. Is that where your aura of over-correctness, and, dare I say it, somewhat official style comes from? How much of your own personality do you show?

“But I work in a public institute! Why should I deny that? I have only been able to live from my photography for the last five years. I used to travel as a geologist through the whole of Africa and take rock samples. Of course that is going to have an effect on my artistic work. I keep it like Picasso. I am not influenced by other artists, but by the observations I make in my own life and the work and thoughts that reflect this. Only that can keep me going.”


“I was born in New York and have lived in South Africa for 30 years. Being white, my colleagues at the institute and I were beneficiaries of apartheid, even though I belong to the minority and am an immigrant. The system favoured me simply for being white. Since the break up of apartheid, I have studied how this political change has affected myself and the people in my surroundings. All the photographs of the shadow cabinet were created with colleagues at the institute. I fill a sack with props, give them a spontaneous
ring on their doorbells and ask them if I can take pictures in their living rooms.”

Really? And they let you in? Quite a lot of your pictures look like torture chambers. Rats, graffiti, concrete, rats, rubbish. One might think that after one of your shoots the rooms would need renovating.

“I won’t tell you if that is true or if the rooms in which I take my photographs already imply most of what I wish to show. I called the series Shadow Cabinets for a good reason. I intrude on the everyday rooms of the white working classes – once the elite of South African society – whose current situation can only be described by grey tones. In other words: I ask more questions, than I have answers.”

Room of the Ninja Turtles, 2001

Room of the Ninja Turtles, 2001


Ambivalence, 2003; Puppy between feet, 1999; Twirling wires, 2001

Ambivalence, 2003; Puppy between feet, 1999; Twirling wires, 2001


Cat catcher, 1998

Cat catcher, 1998


Why do you use analogue photography rather than digital?

“Out of pure nostalgia. I am a child of the 50s of the past century. My first camera was an SLR. The first photographs that impressed me were photos in newspapers. My mother had close connections to the Magnum agency. My photos can also be seen as reportage photographs.”

But your photographs are staged. They call to mind installations, sculptures and environments.

“Yes, but they report a certain attitude towards life.”

Roger Ballen’s explanation stands in the room like a monument. Attitude to life? My clueless silence breaks his search for a more suitable explanation. He slowly strokes his shadow of a beard. Eyes roll. Absurd theatre. Still waiting for an answer he dives into his trouser pocket and fishes out an old, leather wallet. His bony fingers fumble out a business card which he gives to me. He lives in Parktown on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Home of white trash as he puts it.

The travel guide, however, suggests the respectable settlements of American suburbia. Luxury houses are hidden behind high walls; the streets are clean and tidy and the blacks who come here are considered criminals. The people that live here might be a lot of things, but they are certainly not white trash. Is Roger Ballen trying to throw me off the scent? Either way, he has definitely provided more questions than answers.

All images cRoger Ballen, courtesy Galerie Johnen and Schöttle, Köln

Posted in: English, Interview