Taking a look at ourselves
Sally Pryor speaks to photographer Roger Ballen about his confronting exhibition Brutal, Tender, Human, Animal
At first glance, Roger Ballen’s iconic photograph of a pair of identical twins has all the marks of a traditional portrait: the young men stand close together and look directly at the camera, filling up the frame from the shoulders up. But a first glance is all you need to get the full force of the image. The twins are almost grotesque, with large noses, thick necks, protruding lower lips and comically enormous ears. It’s hard to put a finger on what is the most disturbing. Is it the strings of drool streaming simultaneously from each man’s mouth, staining their shirts? Or is it the fact that they seem to be looking directly at you, appraising you, judging you?
Ballen took the photograph on black and white film shortly after meeting the twins, and says the disturbing elements have more to do with the viewer than the subject. “What they’re really doing is making you look at yourself, and that’s probably why you don’t like their stare,” he says.
The world-renowned photographer was in Canberra this week to promote his exhibition, Brutal, Tender, Human, Animal, showing at the National Library of Australia. The exhibition, which has been running since November, is filled with images that are unsettling and Roger Ballen says his work makes people look at themselves.
The world-renowned photographer was in Canberra this week to promote his exhibition, Brutal, Tender, Human, Animal, showing at the National Library of Australia. The exhibition, which has been running since November, is filled with images that are unsettling and beautiful, disturbing and compelling in more than just their subject matter.
Born in New York City in 1950, Ballen grew up surrounded by photography. His mother was involved in the post-war New York art scene, and worked as a photographer’s assistant at a Magnum Photography Agency in 1964. She set up one of America’s first photography galleries, and Ballen says that by the time he was 18, he had met some of America’s most influential photographers and seen their work. With this solid grounding in photographic aesthetics and technique, Ballen turned his back on the art world when he left the United States to travel. He met his future wife in South Africa, settled there after completing a doctorate in geology, and has lived there ever since. He says ultimately, what drew him to South Africa was the mixture of Third World and First World communities in South Africa. “I liked that tension – aspects of cultures trying to find some medium of living together,” he says. It was also where he was able to launch his profession as a geologist, which for him has always been a passion, rather than a practical way to make a living.
This passion has crept subtly into his work in ways in which even he can’t quite articulate, particularly in his later, less straightforward photographs. While earlier images are traditional and less complex, his later work is more theatrical and interactive. Children, animals, household objects, shadows and smears of dirt-everything is deliberately placed. And while these later images are every bit as stark and arresting, he says it is this earlier work has generally been the more controversial, precisely because it is less complex. “The earlier work is direct and to the point, and I think, therefore, had a more controversial effect than some of the later ones,” he says. “The later ones have had more impact on the art world than the earlier ones, which had more impact on the average person.”
Ballen’s work has always been provocative, but it was in 1994 that a bubbling tide of controversy erupted, when he published a book, Platteland: images of rural South Africa. It was the same year that apartheid in South Africa ended, and while the book established him as an artist overseas, it was received with hostility in him adopted homeland. The book was a collection of images he had captured in poor rural areas outside Johannesburg, starting from the early 1980s. He began by photographing buildings and people in the street, but this practice shifted to actually knocking on people’s doors and asking to photograph interiors and their inhabitants. These early images are among his most disturbing and arresting. The twins are there, as is the tall, pregnant woman and her short, chubby husband, posing for the camera and sparkling with pride. There’s Brian with Pet Pig, and a prison warden with a sculpted face that is the stuff of nightmares. In fact, all of it has the quality of a bizarre dream – the dimensions all seem wrong, the subjects are dreamlike and real all at once, and the images are brutal in their honesty. This, Ballen says, is why this phase of his work is still the most povocative, on more than one level. “Initially, it was controversial because it showed a group of white people in South Africa who society wanted to forget,” he says. “Those people didn’t symbolise an aspect of white culture that the government wanted to promote at that time-a symbol of white people being in control, being ordered, being authoritative, being confident. These pictures showed a group of white people beingjust the opposite of that.” In presenting this naked, grubby and full-frontal state of reality, he says he unwittingly threatened the status quo. “It wasn’t exactly what the white government and a lot of middle-class South Africans wanted to see of their country.”
But on another level, he says his pictures are controversial because of what they say to the viewer, and how they challenge the human psyche. “They challenge the issue of stability, the fragile reality that [people] create around themselves, and they challenge who they are on all sorts of levels that people don’t want to confront,” he says. But he insists that this is not what he sets out to do, that ultimately, he takes pictures to challenge himself. “That’s the only purpose of taking the pictures. It’s purely a means of my own expression, and it’s my own diary, as I pass through time. That would be the only way I can explain it,” he says. And while he is gratified when people have a strong reaction to his work, he doesn’t believe there needs to be a strong relationship between good art and controversy. “Things change politically, and I think good art has something permanent about it, has something universal, something that speaks of the eternal human condition an impact that goes beyond the temporary.”
Apart from his early grounding in the art of photography, Ballen is an artist who has always worked in isolation, both physically and in his technique. He has never been comfortable using either colour or digital photography, and says he is still challenged, in a way that he finds more satisfying, by the precision required to use rolls of black-and-white film.
Until about nine years ago, he considered himself a geologist with photography as a lifelong hobby. But he says living in a country as politically, socially and culturally isolated as South Africa forced him develop the unique, introspective style that sets him apart. “I think being isolated forced me to look at myself and forced me to improvise out of my imagination rather than trying to depend on what other people did,” he says. “I wasn’t at all immersed in the art world, I wasn’t aware what anyone else was doing, living in South Africa.” He says that even today, he finds the process of capturing images a mystery. “There’s something about taking photographs that’s mysterious, and that you can’t necessarily predict. Even after doing this for 58 years – for most of my life – I still never walk away from a picture saying, ‘I got it.’ “It’s very, very difficult to predict how it will come together, it’s impossible in some ways. There’s a whole process of developing the film and printing it up that has its own life, in a way.”
And this is perhaps what emerges most strongly from his work, the restless images that speak of being human, but also of being part of world that perhaps we don’t understand as well as we think we do.
11 Brutal, Tender, Human, Animal: Roger Ballen Photography is on at the National Library of Australia, Exhibition Gallery, until March 29.
PANORAMA – THE CANBERRA TIMES, February 14, 2009