Photographer Roger Ballen tells Time Out about South Africa’s mines and marginalised people in light of a new show at OCAT
Like the opening sequences of HBO series True Detectives and True Blood, Roger Ballen’s photographs of South Africa explore the strangeness and violence often feared and sometimes found in small towns. There’s a real sense that you ain’t from around here, but then neither is Ballen.
The photographer, whose mother worked at Magnum magazine, was surrounded by photographers when he was growing up in 1950s and ’60s New York. After completing a PhD in mineral economics at the Colorado School of Mines, he moved to Johannesburg to work as a geologist, but photography had already been imprinted into parts of his brain, and he continued to shoot during his spare time.
‘For nearly 20 years I worked on my photography [1982-2001] without showing it to anyone,’ Ballen says. ‘I believe that as a result of this isolation from the mainstream art market I was able to develop a unique aesthetic. It is impossible for me to hypothesise how my photography would have evolved if I had lived elsewhere.’
While photography and geology seem worlds apart, Ballen sees similarities. ‘I have always stated that most fields require an artistic and scientific approach to excel in. Photography and geology are no different. In both photography and geology I am trying to pierce the surface, to enter a deeper, more mysterious zone. Like in geology, my photography deals with layers, structure, and displacements.’
In the same way that he explored physical depths in the geological world, Ballen spelunks psychological space in photographs that include stick figures scrawled on the walls, dead birds, masks, grimy dolls, and coils of wire that resemble scribbles.
In earlier series such as Dorps and Platteland, he documents small town and rural parts of South Africa, focusing mainly on poor white South Africans. Some have carnivalesque faces, their features so large they seem to have outgrown their heads.
‘There is no particular reason that my work focuses more on white South Africans than black ones,’ Ballen says. ‘Until 1994, a white person had to obtain a permit to enter certain areas where blacks lived. Certainly, it is easier from a technical point of view to photograph white skins, as compared to blacks.’
Although Ballen was shooting in South Africa during the dismantling of apartheid, that wasn’t a focus of his photography. ‘My work is primarily psychological in nature; not political, social, or economic, and therefore the political changes in South Africa did not have a major influence on the evolution of my photographic career.’
South Africa has changed for the better, but Ballen is less optimistic about the way photography has evolved. ‘I see myself as from the last generation of photographers that was brought up in an environment where black and white photography dominated and who still uses film. The more I view the mass of imagery that exists in the world today, the more determined I am to continue with the process that I have been involved in for nearly 50 years.’
Ballen’s analogue works will thus contrast with digital compositions by Taiwan-born, New York-based artist Daniel Lee, whose works are simultaneously on display in the Metamorphosis – Mirror show at OCAT this month.
The relevance of Ballen’s work to a Shanghai audience may not be immediately apparent, but he is confident it will make an impact here. ‘I had exhibitions at Aura Gallery in Beijing and was a featured artist at Pingyao last year. I was very impressed during my stay in Pingyao with the amazing interest and enthusiasm there seemed to be here for my work. I always obtain a great deal of satisfaction when people, who know nothing about me or the culture I work in, seem to be deeply affected by my imagery.’
Metamophosis - Mirror is at OCAT until Sunday 14 September.