Roger Ballen: On the subconscious

Deathbed, 2010, from the Upcoming Series, Roger Ballen
Deathbed, 2010, from the Upcoming Series, Roger Ballen

An interview with Sarah Rhodes

Roger, the theme for this issue is Wild. The closer we look at the meaning of the word, the less wild things seem. As if we tame the wild by looking closely at it. What does the word wild mean to you?

Wild means untamed, not oppressed, being natural.

Your images have a freedom, where the psyche roams free. There seems to be no rules or boundaries in the world you depict. Would you describe them as wild?

My images are pervaded by symbols from the deeper levels of the human subconscious. This place is untameable; has its own rules and functions according to its own laws. Most of humanities behaviour is a product of its evolution over time.

Would you explain how you navigate the line between fact and fiction and the power of the blurry line?

I intrinsically understand this blurry line between what might be considered real versus fictional. The power of photographs being on this line is that they challenge the viewer’s perception of reality and in doing so create the real possibility of extending that person’s consciousness.

Ritual, 2011, from the Upcoming Series, Roger Ballen
Ritual, 2011, from the Upcoming Series, Roger Ballen

So much contemporary photography leans more towards the fictional. Do you feel these type of images are not using photography’s most powerful tool, in that they are not playing with the idea that the camera never lies?

I believe photography is most effective when the viewer believes in the authenticity of the image. It seems to me that painting is a more effective tool in representing the fictional than photography. Unfortunately, most photographs that I have seen that try to be fictional and real at the same time tend to be on the contrived side.

The Die Antwoord music video ‘I Fink You Freeky’ you directed has received critical acclaim. Photographers are increasingly moving into music videos and feature films. How do you see this path being carved out?

As far as I can predict, I will always see myself as a black and white film photographer. I was truly amazed about the reaction people had all over the world to the music video I Fink U Freeky. Literally millions of people became familiar with my work that would most likely have never been familiar with it. The audience for music is potentially thousands of times larger than for art photography.

You were quoted saying: ‘People fail to realise that a camera is fundamentally a tool of the mind; no different than a paint brush in the hand of a painter or a pen of a poet’. To what extent have non-photograpy-based visual artists informed your work, for example Cy Twombly, Picasso, Jean Dubuffet or Joan Miro?

It is very difficult for me to comment exactly how much any artist has had on my work. Ultimately, I believe my evolution has come about through decades of taking photographs. I have often commented that “little steps make big steps.” Nevertheless, it would not be untruthful to state that painters have had more influence on my development over the past decade than photographers.

How important is reading literature in influencing your projects?

Photography is a based on a visual language. No matter what a person says it does not assist me in any real way to create a photograph. A camera is a visual instrument; it does not have ears.

Cut Loose, from the Boarding House series, 2005, Roger Ballen
Cut Loose, from the Boarding House series, 2005, Roger Ballen

Your images have a surrealist element. Do images from your dreams find their way into your work? To what extent have the surrealist artists, like Andre Kertesz, Man Ray and Raoul Hausmann influenced your work?

I never plan my photographs; they are the product of an interaction between the environment, drawings, the textures, animals and my inner mind. Depending on dreams alone will not guarantee one a powerful image; one has to also have a complementary scientific approach and be able to work with real objects in real space.

The foundation of your images seem quite planned yet there is always something left open to serendipity, specifically this image below. In your most recent series, it looks as though there is a lot of pre-production involved. Would you please describe the process of making your pictures and your scientific approach? How much do you draw on your own sub-conscious versus those people you meet at the half-way houses when constructing these images?

My photographs link my own interior with the outside world. Nevertheless, there are infinite possibilities and it is up to me to organise the world through the camera. I am basically one who organises visual chaos into visual coherency. There is nobody on the planet who can take photographs like me.

In his essay for the New York University, Robert J.C. Young explored the idea that images from the series, Boarding House, referenced the pictures of torture coming out of Abu Ghraib, for example Cut Loose, 2005. To what extent do you feel this is true? Do images from the media somehow find their way into your subconscious?

Images from the media rarely have an effect on me; my photographs primarily reflect photographical meanings not cultural. Many of my images, like those from Abu Ghraib, as those from Goya are archetypal in nature. It is partly because of this aspect that the images remain with people and have such an impact.

You have always worked on book projects as a way of envisaging a body of work. Does this approach influence the making of your images? 

Dresie and Casie, Twins, West Transvaal, 1993, from the Platteland series.
Dresie and Casie, Twins, West Transvaal, 1993, from the Platteland series.

Most of my book projects have taken approximately five years to create. During this time the project evolve in endless unpredictable manners. I have always seen this process as being a very creative undefined one in which images become the basis for other images. A book of mine should consist of images that can all stand alone as works of art, but at the same time play an important role in defining the aesthetic of the overall project.

I still do a bit of geology as I enjoy interacting in nature. I gradually gave up my geological career beginning in 2001.

What advice do you have for emerging photographic artists?

Work hard, be disciplined, work with passion, and use photography as a means to better understanding your life on the planet.

Roger Ballen is represented by numerous galleries, including Stills Gallery in Sydney, Australia.