Others and their others: spectrality and monstrosity in the photographs of Roger Ballen (Lewis Johnson)

Posted on June 27, 2009


Others and their others: spectrality and

monstrosity in the photographs of Roger



Lewis Johnson

Bahçeşehir University (Turkey)


This essay argues that what is disturbing and strange about the best of Roger Ballen’s work is linked to the ways in which it invokes the related spectralities of the photographed other and a discriminatory racist gaze, exposing as it does ways in which those photographed negotiate their becoming spectral via being photographed. Ballen’s work represents a problem, both for traditional categorizations of photographic work and for accounts of photography motivated by a sense of an analogue/digital break. It has either been categorised, unconvincingly, as aesthetic, or viewed as preoccupied by past difficulties. This essay argues that Ballen’s work discovers an inventiveness in relation to site that, in responding to the spectralising effects of camera-made images, is exposed via the ways in which those photographed remark the provisionality of the domestic, its hierarchies and spaces.

In an interview Bernard Stiegler conducted in 1993, transcribed under the title ‘Spectographies’, Jacques Derrida was invited to comment on lines that he delivered in the film, Ghostdance, directed by Ken McMullen ten years earlier in 1983.

Film plus psychoanalysis equals a science of ghosts. Modern technology, contrary to appearances, although it is scientific, increases tenfold the power of ghosts. The future belongs to ghosts (Derrida & Stiegler, 2002, 115).

The lines were improvised, Derrida explains with regret. In the filming of this part of the film, in which he had been directed to say to his fellow performer, Pascale Ogier, only ‘And what about you, do you believe in ghosts?’, Derrida had improvised, binding the future – haunted as it was to be by this act of recording on camera – to the spectral.

Pascale Ogier’s subsequent death drew Derrida into recollection of looking into her eyes, at the request of the director, with her having instructed him in establishing what filmmakers call ‘the eyeline’, looking at her looking at him, and responding to his question by saying, ‘Yes, now I do, yes’. Ten years on, Derrida recalls this act of recording, and this exchange, along with Ogier’s subsequent death. Seeing the film again, Derrida recalls the uncanny spectrality at work in the scene staged for the camera, the ‘spectre of her spectre’ reminding him of the spectrality of her having said ‘now’, the ‘now’ that haunted the past with repetition, death and future, the now of ‘in this dark room on another continent, in another world, now, yes, believe me, I believe in ghosts’ (Derrida & Stiegler, 2002, 119/20).

In this paper on the photographs by Roger Ballen, I want to propose that Derrida’s account of the gaze of the spectral other can inform us concerning the uncanny monstrosity of Ballen’s photographs of those, as he has said, whom he has got to know and photographed in and around Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa. I shall argue here that Ballen’s work, at its best, achieves an uncanniness that opens the time of viewing to a sense of the otherness of the other, an otherness that enables us to imagine a preoccupation by otherness, in particular via the scenario-isations of being visible that the photographer has encouraged at least some of those he has photographed to stage. This preoccupation by otherness, an otherness that is not simply to be observed, but is staged through a variety of means of being and making visible, may turn us towards a thought of the others with whom those photographed exist, perhaps on another continent, often in dark rooms, in other worlds, as it were, but also in relation to other worlds: worlds across which others, animate, human, as well as inanimate and animal, haunt those photographed by Ballen.

In this paper, then, I shall be seeking to give an account of being haunted by haunting: sharing in the haunted lives of others via Ballen’s photographs such that a sense of being social may be understood to be remarkable as political. I shall be proposing that Ballen’s work concerns what may be termed the places if not precisely the communities in which he has worked in this way – given that this being haunted that emerges as part of existence of those he has photographed interrupts any clear sense of community, present or to come. Ballen’s haunted work, I shall argue, recalls us to a sense of the political of communicating in view of preoccupations by others who do not share a common relation to histories and futures of racism that Ballen’s work conjures with, without conjuring away.

In relation to what is understandably his inherited concern as a photographer for the sites of existence of people that is nevertheless characteristically underrated in dominant discourses of photography, the trajectory of Ballen’s work is more often than not described as being from the documentary to the aesthetic. On the contrary, Ballen’s work uncovers a problematic of relatedness to otherness that requires an understanding of the unhomeliness of the sites of a more or less domestic existence. What is monstrous, I shall be arguing, in a sense of the notion of the monstrous that Derrida’s work has instructed us in – namely, the new – emerges, in excess of the malformed, the deformed or the unformed, as a provisionality of occupation, a sharing with others paradoxically known but unknown to the sharer: a space of visibility in which spectrality and monstrosity share, as the newly haunting, that complicates and co-exists with any model of possession, of self or home as site of dwelling, or of autonomous, self-determining future. “It is in this space [of inheritance], this home outside itself, that the spectre comes,” Derrida remarks, later in that same interview (Derrida & Stiegler, 2002, 132).

I shall endeavour, in my conclusion here, to suggest what this political understanding of otherness and relations with others and site as other may imply concerning the significance of the new South Africa that Ballen’s work invites us – wherever we are – to take on. Ballen himself, however, has strongly resisted associating his work with the place of its emergence. Derrida’s account of the spectrality of the gaze of the other provides a framework in relation to which the effect of being addressed, as if summoned, by the look of the photographed other can be understood: thus, Ballen’s work can be understood to communicate not a particular belief or opinion or even position about those living often in apparently impoverished circumstances in, around or outside the metropolises of South Africa, but rather a sort of sharing out and sharing in of the problematics of the understanding of others and where they live, apparently observable as such, the objects of beliefs, opinions about and positions on contemporary life.

At odds with some of the discourses of value as well as practices of contemporary photography, despite being widely collected and sold, Ballen’s square medium-format camera images appear to eschew digital manipulation, as he does working in colour (Ingeldew, 2005, 81). This return or turn to older analogue technology has proved somewhat awkward for commentators, but it is, I think, the insistence on a particular working with a particular field of view, a working that in turn insists on a problematic of the look of the photographer, that marks Ballen’s authorship as itself haunting some of the brave new worlds of digital photographic work with a series of spectralities: of analogue photography and the look of the photographer as well as those of photographed others.

It is this that makes Derrida’s remarks concerning the future and ghosts particularly relevant here. The problem with Derrida’s remark associating the one with the other, the occasion of his regret, is in its assigning of the spectral to the future, as if the present might be protected from the look of the finite and mortal other, the other who ‘concerns me’ while exceeding me ‘infinitely and universally’, making of me an inheritor of the look that spectralises. The staging of the filmed scene involving the schooling in eyeline and the acting in relation the look of the other drew a sense of a future to come which would belong to ghosts. As Derrida comments, it is as if everything that tends to come under the heading of image and technology ‘were on display: a collection of objects, things we see, spectacles in front of us, devices we might use’, as if by means of camera-related technologies we might put off the solicitation by the look of the other for a future-to-come, albeit a future of more and more ghosts (Derrida & Stiegler, 2002, 121/2).

The sense that the monstrous new of the technological other is deflected into ‘devices we might use’ as if to overcome the problematic ‘infinitely-finite world’ of the other is sustained in Derrida’s account of photography in this same interview. Commenting on Barthes’s account of photography as an ‘emanation of the referent’, a recording of ‘radiations that come to touch me’, Derrida extends a thought of the importance of touch to camera images more generally:

When Barthes grants such importance to touch in the photographic experience, it is insofar as the very thing that one is deprived of, as much as in spectrality as in the gaze which looks at images, is indeed tactile sensitivity. The desire to touch, the tactile effect or affect, is violently summoned by its very frustration, summoned to come back, like a ghost, in the places haunted by its absence. (Derrida & Stiegler, 2002, 115)

Photography, for Derrida, is not uniquely a medium in which the other haunts us as referent, but is rather a camera-mode among others – or a series of camera-modes, a series that the digital, for example, becomes part of – that solicits a desire for touch, from either side as it were, as photographed as well as viewer. Ballen’s images are repeatedly crossed by traces of touch as if to seek to come to terms with the power of the camera to render visible that which appears as real as the touchable. This solicitation of the traces of touch, however, only confirms the distancing that the photographs of the photographed enact, rendering the site a scene of the acting out of an overcoming of being televised, of being visible from a distance and subject to as well as subject of spectralising powers.

It is not surprising that Ballen’s career has been represented as the shift from the documentary or social documentary to the artistic or aesthetic. Born in the US, trained as a geologist, Ballen also grew up among photographers: his mother worked for the Magnum photographic agency as a picture researcher and opened the first photography gallery in New York City in 1962. His first collection of photographs, Boyhood, a book published in 1979 was shot in South America and Europe as well as South Africa, after he had moved there in 1974. Working part-time for mining concerns in South Africa, Ballen published Dorps in 1986, his first collection of photographs of people and places taken solely there. His subsequent collections, Platteland: Images of Rural South Africa (1994), Outland (2001) and Shadow Chamber (2005) have all been shot in South Africa, apparently in something of a ‘narrower and narrower’ radius, as he put it. He has admitted, ‘I tend to go to the same place, to the same people, over and over again,’ linking, in a perhaps minimally open and paratactical fashion, the twin concerns of his work (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2003). A brief selection from these intense and complex series of photographs is difficult to make, but those selected here, from Old Man, Ottoshoop, 1983 [figure 1] from Dorps to One Arm Goose, 2004 [figure 8] from Shadow Chamber may suggest how Ballen’s career tends to be represented as a shift from the social and documentary to the staged and the aesthetic.

There is another way, however, to conceive of what drew Ballen into a persistent concern with those he met in relation to the places he has photographed them. Old Man, Ottoschoop, of 1983, may stand as a notional beginning of this concern to photograph not just places and their people, but to photograph people in places, or more precisely in relation to marked sites. The dark shadow that falls across the yoke of the old man’s coat appears to obscure the white marks on the wall behind him, making of this a complex black and white image of white and black: a black man with white-edged beard, edged by the dark shadow that obscures the enigmatic white grid-like markings beyond him, that echo or are echoed by the odd white marks on his dark coat that does not wholly obscure the white collar emerging from behind it and which frames his face and look, from his white and dark eyes. The incipient smile we might try to read as part of a wider ideological meaning, concerning the dutiful or ironically dutiful pre-post-apartheid South African black man. We might, however, also find ourselves reading it in relation to the more internal play of black and white here, and the possibility of a collusion between photographer and photographed, about the site and its markings. Not quite separable from site, then, this image may stand as that beginning of the recurrence of people in relation to place as marked site, across Ballen’s subsequent work, at odds with the more traditional and pastoral landscape imagery that is also to be found in Dorps.

Before I continue, though, to insist on the recurrence of this problematic of people and site, it would perhaps be as well to remark Ballen’s apparent resistance to thinking this through in relation to the inherited histories of South Africa, of racism if also the political defeat of apartheid. ‘These photographs are no more about South Africa than about the man in the moon’, Ballen has said (The Guardian, 2002). But what if it could be argued that these photographs are about the very speciality that links such a figure as the man in the moon with South Africa? No longer a polity under white minority rule, divided up along lines of colour according to an unsurpassed systematic racism, South Africa yet brings with it spectralities of racist discrimination and policy that cannot not haunt its other senses of future. The man in the moon as a literary figure would not just be a character in narratives told to or by children – Ballen’s work returns often enough to figures of children – but would also be a way of making sense for a narrativisation of the visible, part of a way in which a certain culture, in this case, Western culture, albeit with certain and uncertain addressees, makes sense of something seen. The man in the moon would thus be a way of making it seem as if something seen could see us too, giving face and gaze to the visible. The moon also relays light: finding the features of the face of a man in the moon invites it to be imagined that this face survives any blinding by light, allowing for it to negotiate the tension between the televising of being visible and the look of the other, the reduction of the anxiety of the one conducting a reduction of anxiety of the other, producing the benignant, if not benign character.

Is that what Ballen meant, by comparing South Africa with the man in the moon, that his work is about re-opening such identifications as would re-gather around such a benignant figure of vision in the visible, the gaze of a white light/face, to malignancy? Ballen’s work has indeed drawn comments concerning the dark or satanic. In what follows, I shall aim rather to re-open Ballen’s work to questions of what lies between the spectral and the monstrous, or at least what conducts us insistently between them in his photographs.

Posted in: Article, English