Photographer Roger Ballen’s darkly theatrical depictions of Johannesburg’s marginalised white poor reflect a universal helplessness. By Richard Cooke.

Roger Ballen’s lens a dark mirror

No one seemed to be startled by the rat running along the art gallery floor. Sydney College of the Arts is big enough and old enough for the elements to encroach, and under the building, which used to be a hospital for the mentally ill when those were still called “lunatic asylums”, there are sandstone tunnels that stretch all the way to the sea. They might be teeming with rodents, but their full paths are still unknown to humans. What those tunnels were used for is unclear. There are rumours more difficult patients were admitted through them, or disappeared through them. Now some of these spaces have just been used for an installation, by the New York-born South African photographer Roger Ballen.

The gallery staff are used to the wildlife, whoever is showing. But for a visitor, the rat itself seems like part of the Ballen show. Rats are one of his leitmotivs, along with masks, bales of wire, chalk drawings, birds, cats, rabbits, stained walls, protruding rib cages, gap-toothed mouths, milky eyes, filth, disintegration, social privation and the unconscious. This rat has escaped, permeated the prints, seeped through from the deep into the surface layer of our reality.

“I had a dead rat here today,” says Ballen, talking about another rat. For a man well known for the darkness and chaos of his imagery, the photographer has the calm demeanour of a doctor delivering bad news, but undercut by something wry. “Nobody wanted to open the bag and look at the dead rat, but then they go to a supermarket and see 50 or 500 dead chickens, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a dead rat; it’s more offensive. It’s more something that you haven’t been able to resolve. You can see there’s a block there in that person’s head. They can’t deal with the reality of 21st-century culture.”

It’s strange to hear an artist so committed to atavism and archetypes talk about the here and now like this. There’s a whiff of another time, too, around his latest project, and the new video it produced. Ballen likes the possibility of online video. His 2012 video clip for South African hip-hop act Die Antwoord’s “I Fink You Freeky” has been viewed 80 million times.

The students at SCA once spent union funds planting crystals around the grounds, trying to soothe any lingering spirits of the tormented. Ballen seems to be trying to conjure them up instead. The musty alcoves under the gallery (visitors have to wear face masks) have been converted into chambers of horror, full of bandaged mannequins, ghoulish graffiti and a profane reliquary. In the video, Ballen is giving a talk at the gallery before he is frogmarched to the dungeons by white-coats. Collaborators provide the howls of anguish.

It’s garish, even a bit gross, somewhere between neo-Bedlam and a ghost train. One member of the audience burst into tears; others were nonplussed. But this maddening and sometimes absurd experience is unmistakably the vision of one of the century’s great photographers. And if his provocation has taken on a theatrical, even showbiz strain, that seems reasonable. After decades of anonymity as a geologist, with no commercial photography career and working in a South African outpost largely outside of the international art scene, the attention must sometimes feel overdue.

There are a limited number of foundation myths archetypes to choose from. Ballen’s is the Exodus template. He was raised in a household of photography – his beloved mother was an editor for Magnum. “She couldn’t sell Kertész pictures for $200, vintage, in the ’60s and ’70s. They may be worth $200,000 now. But she couldn’t even sell it for $200. There was no market. So one didn’t think of it in those terms. It was just a passion, like being a poet, basically.”

After his mother died, her mourning son took to the road, capturing images of boyhood to make a testament to his own. “I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town. That’s how I got to South Africa. Then from Istanbul to New Guinea. Five years of being on the road by myself. That’s how I did my first book… When I travelled the world for those years, I just saw the end of it, the end of traditional cultures.” There was another kind of transition going on at the same time. Ballen had studied psychology at University of California, Berkeley, during its counterculture peak in the late ’60s, but later retrained as a geologist. “I didn’t really want to end up working for a bank or an American corporation. I wanted to have freedom and to wander around. I liked the concept that I didn’t have to sit in an office. You know, I like dealing with the earth, so that’s why that had an influence, that’s why I was interested in this. Still am. Still am.”

He remains a little wistful about geology, with its clear objectives and samples never as pesky and mercurial as human beings. “The arts… it’s a hard, very hard, complicated, competitive, subjective, awful field to recognise. Not like geology. Geology’s easy. Take the rock, bang the rock off, a little piece of rock, take the rock then put it in a bag, fill out a form, what percentage of copper, zinc, gold, arsenic, sulphur is this rock? That’s easy.”

Perhaps the sense of perspective in Ballen’s photography, which sometimes offers what appears a raw expanse of pure horizon, comes from his consideration of two very different time frames. One is geological time: measured in billions of years. The other is photographic time: hundredths of a second. “I like to sort of see myself as just a product of geology. A product of the planet, a product of the earth.

“The one five-hundredth of a second is determined by the 4.5 billion years. So, when people say, ‘Where did your photography start?’, I say, ‘Three or four billion years ago.’ That the mind is made up of that, and before that. We can’t go there, we don’t know what existed in those realms, but this is an important part of the mind.”

Ballen is a supreme formalist, and like many formalists who insert human beings into their systems, the result is often described as dehumanising.

His breakthrough book Platteland (meaning “flatland” in Afrikaans) was published in 1994, the same year apartheid ended in South Africa. He had driven hundreds of thousands of kilometres on the plains outside Johannesburg, and braved multiple arrests (public photography was illegal) to document life in the dorps, forgotten villages peopled by poor Boers. Internationally the images made him famous, but inside South Africa he was almost a pariah. His resistance to political interpretations of his work springs partly from that time, when hating Roger Ballen was a bipartisan position.

“They really hated it,” he says now of Platteland. “The whites hated it. Forget about the blacks – the blacks thought I was a hero doing it. But the left wing hated it. Because there was an American going into the field showing people who were strange, who were alienated and who were white.”

His subjects were impoverished and sometimes congenitally aberrant due to inbreeding, and he was accused of exploiting them. It’s a charge that has followed Ballen throughout his career, in an effort to pin him as an insider making outsider art. The subjects of Platteland and its follow-up, Outland, often looked like a grotesque parody of the proud Afrikaner white supremacist ideal. That added to the domestic heat. His famous Sergeant F. de Bruin, Department of Prisons employee, Orange Free State, 1992, a portrait of a man who looks like a human caricature in prison guard uniform, seemed to capture and mock the anxieties of a crumbling repressive power structure.

“They were there in a way showing that whites had been destroyed by their own system, to a degree,” Ballen says. “And the right wing hated it because they’d presented themselves as all-powerful and now they were weak and chaotic and didn’t like seeing themselves in that way. So, it broke the illusion of white supremacy.”

The best known photo from the series is Dresie and Casie, twins, Western Transvaal, 1993. Ballen is still contacted about it on average once a week. He has never divulged the identity of these striking, misshapen brothers, although a curious journalist later tracked them down to a nursing home. A horror video game based characters on them. One request to Ballen sought permission to feature their likenesses on a bottle of tomato sauce. The worldwide resonance of the photo is a mystery, even to its creator. The image was captured within 10 minutes of meeting the brothers. His follow-up efforts with the subjects never worked satisfactorily.

“It really is so interesting, because I probed this and probed this and probed this picture… why it’s so recognisable, and it’s my most famous image, and it’s not my favourite. But definitely more people know that image than any of my other images.

“It pushes people back into the archetype of humanity – where we came from, in some ways – and so you see what they look like. It says something about the evolution of mankind, I guess, in the back of their mind. Who can prove anything I say? It’s a very abstract way of thinking that has no basis in science. But how else can you explain the archetypal? It’s a biological thing, too; it’s a neurological thing.”

But Ballen wasn’t concerned with the politics, and he didn’t see the chaos of the dorps as an outlier, but as a stark version of what everyone goes through. He considered his job as an artist was to make sense of these scenarios through aesthetics, reorganising them, reintegrating them, presenting them as whole.

“Those people… they lived out of habit, in a way,” Ballen says. “People don’t like that idea. They don’t like that. They think that they need purpose, they need excuses, they need to build ladders. And they forget that the ladder… They don’t want to think of the fact that the ladder’s going to crumble on them. That, they can’t handle.

“The world had to stare at those pictures and come to terms with them, in terms of trying to resolve how the subjects were this way. When people ask me who is my main inspiration for Platteland, it wasn’t Diane Arbus, it was [Samuel] Beckett.

“The people are from Waiting for Godot or whatever. They are sitting there, not being able to deal with the chaos around them, which everybody has to deal with. And so these are people that have showed a sense of helplessness and inability to cope, and that’s a metaphor people don’t like dealing with.”

Perhaps to emphasise this universality more, Ballen’s later work has moved away from documentary photography to staged pieces, often collaborations with his subjects. One drawback of his Fellini-like eye for faces was that audiences focused so much on the people that they missed the point of the pictures, constructing narratives that skipped over the uncomfortable imagery. Now the faces are replaced by hands, or birds, or masks, or nothing. His fantastical scenes assembled in concert with marginalised subjects lead to the familiar charge of exploitation and his familiar retort of hypocrisy.

For Ballen such photographer–subject relationships are only exploitative if the collaborators are written off as having no agency or power, and when critics award themselves a misplaced sense of superiority. Ballen himself seems to revel in the company of the marginalised, finding something honest and true in their company. It has also given his life in Johannesburg a supporting cast, including people such as Stanley the
rat-catcher, with whom he is in regular contact.

On his way to shoots around Johannesburg – the surrounding countryside was costing him too many days driving – he visits pawnshops, junkyards and witchdoctors’ markets, hunting for props and inspiration. Those markets seem pertinent – they are where fetish objects are sold, manifestations of dark energies in broken human figures and their simulacra, scrawled symbols and masks, tools of absurdity, mystery and occult power.

Does Ballen think of himself as a conduit for elemental forces?

“That would be a nice way to think of my work,” he says. “That would be a description of me that would elicit a very favourable response. I am very pleased with that definition.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Dark mirror".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.