Surfaces and Strategies – Roger Ballen in Conversation
Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography – Photo London, 20th May 2017
Attending the talk by Roger Ballen at this year’s Photo London proved to be the highlight of my day. Looking at his videos on his website, he appears to be a showman – he did not disappoint.
Figure 1: Sutherst. 2017
Viewing his work, reveals his use of symbols in the images. Many of these recur throughout: animals, masks, dolls, blankets, scrawled writing, primitive paintings amongst others. As Ballen explained during the talk, each object in his images is a subject. Ballen describes himself as a formalist. Each object has a purpose in the image. Everything works together, everything in the picture means something, and everything is organic. Take away any one item and the image dies. Ballen says that he finds meaning in everything.
Ballen only shoots on film in black and white, and uses harsh, direct flash rather than studio lights. He makes only the photographs and art that he wants to. He does not conform to anyone’s expectations. He is unconcerned with art fashion and fads. He says “the worst thing you can do is make work for other people” (Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography 2017).
He has created his own terminology for his practice and started talking about the “Ballenesque”. Ballen explained that it for him, everything starts with the mind. He posed the following at the start of his dramatic talk (Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography 2017):-
“Do you ever think about the mind?
What does the mind tell you?
Is it really the mind?
What does the mind ultimately have to do with your pictures?
What does the mind actually have to do with your pictures?
Perhaps everything. Perhaps nothing.”
He goes on to ask:-
“Does the mind trick you?
What would you be without the mind?
Would you actually exist?
There is no way out. There is no way out. There is no way out of the mind.
Well that’s where it all starts.
That’s where it all ends.
No mind, no pictures.
No pictures, no mind.”
Ballen explained that his work ‘Theatre of the mind’ (1997-2015) was “trying to define my core mind” (Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography 2017). Throughout his career, his work has been about finding the path; finding the way into the mind, not the way out. He continued that once you are on the path, you could continue to go straight on or find yourself going back on yourself. The only way to find this out and follow this path is to go out and take pictures.
With a degree in Psychology from the University of Berkeley, California, it is easy to see where this obsession with the mind comes from. For him, all photographs from the start are psychologically, existentially driven. He gets his subjects to draw their own images and write their own choice of words. He does not tell them what to do. Ballen photographs the subjects in front of what they have drawn and written. He looks to find meaning in what they are saying through this visual medium.
Figure 2: Sutherst. 2017
Ballen is a great believer in the decisive moment. Even though his images are staged and contrived, the actual moment he takes the shot is crucial. He can go days and weeks without taking an image that works. This is part of the process to him. He explained during the talk that “form is not everything, form is the beginning” (Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography 2017). He went on to discuss that “good pictures are unpredictable. It just doesn’t happen when you plan it”. Each of his images has layer upon layer upon layer of meaning in them. The bottom of the image remains “mysterious and you can’t get to the bottom of the meaning of the picture” (Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography 2017). He suggests that this is because we all have different minds that interpret things in different ways. When asked about the meaning of some of his images, his response was “If I can explain my picture, then it is a bad picture” (Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography 2017). This seems like a bit of a cop out to me. As photographers, we all understand and can explain our work. Ballen’s reluctance to do so is part of his act in my opinion. It is quite a self indulgent approach yet seems totally reasonable and believable at the same time. He wants to maintain that distance between himself and the viewer, preserving the mystery and engagement with his images. There is something quite reassuringly Ballen about this.
Figure 3: Ballen. Divided Self. 2007
His image ‘Divided Self, 2007’ from the ‘Theatre of Apparations’ series is one image he does explain to a degree. The image depicts the mind. The left-hand side shows the face. This is the surface; how we look at ourselves in the mirror. The right-hand side shows the mind. The mind that has evolved over 3 million years. It is the driver, the dictator. It makes things happen. The mind is why we cannot stop things happening and why there is war in the world. In Ballen’s opinion, both sides need to integrate for things to change in the world. This, he explained, was why his work was drilling down in to the mind and into the brain, trying to uncover what is happening in our brains.
Ballen demonstrates a real cynicism towards mass culture, both through his work and in how he explains himself. He explains his two main influences as nature and the mystery of his own mind. Ballen’s passion for photography started as a teenager. He describes it (Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography 2017) almost as a disease saying that he “caught it” from his mother and that “there is no cure for it. There are no pills for it. The only relief from it is to take more photographs and then you are calmer about it”. His mother was Adrienne Ballen. She was a picture editor as well as an associate member of the Magnum Agency. Ballen grew up surrounded by great photographers including Cartier-Bresson.
As Ballen’s practice has developed, so has his interaction with his subjects. He has engaged with them more and has taken on the role of a theatrical director in his shoots. He has also included himself in his photographs more and more. His images have become a mixture of photograph and painting and the aesthetics of the images has taken over. Each drawing or painting interacts with the subject, the place and the animals. The drawings and paintings come from reality and the walls in the photographs are covered in them. The drawings represent drawings of social insanity and creativity to Ballen. He says he can’t explain the reality and that he would stop taking photographs if he could. But would he really? I doubt this somehow. Ballen appears to enjoy the controversy too much.
Figure 4: Sutherst. 2017
His move to using animals more and people less in his work was driven by the frustration of being continually asked about the people he photographed and whether he was exploiting them. So, he did the only thing he could, he moved on. For Ballen, animals are an interesting challenging. He says they are ‘tremendous’ and he loves working with them. He uses animals as metaphors for everything that is happening in the world. Whilst he does not set out to a political photographer, his work can be viewed as a political statement against world events. He has no issue with being controversial.
For many years, he has been one of the most controversial photographers. His portraits of marginalised and mentally unstable South Africans have caused much discussion. He has always maintained that his photographs evoke emotions around the “absurdity of the human condition” (Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography 2017) and are a record of his own personal psychological journey.
His work is unapologetically difficult to view. He makes no excuses for how the viewer might feel about the images. He finds it gratifying if people respond to the work. He says it is up to the viewer to figure out why his images affect them in the ways they do. His aim with his work, is to get one part of the mind to speak to the other part of the mind. This says Ballen, is down to the individual viewer to achieve.
Ballen’s next project is going to be about rats. The project will be about the rats part of the universe, about their part of their part of absurdity. They are not going to be portrayed as bad boys or as good guys. The starting point is from us as the viewer recoiling from rats. His projects take him around 5 years to complete. When he gets to the end, he just knows. His intuition tells him it is finished.
My interest is Ballen’s work is the theatrical performances he goes through to produce each image. I find his work challenges me to determine the meaning behind it and I enjoy the aesthetics of his images and the exaggerated style that he shoots.
The full video of the conversation can be seen at https://photolondon.org/event/roger-ballen-in-conversation-with-mark-lubell-executive-director-of-international-center-of-photography/
Roger Ballen In Conversation With Mark Lubell, Executive Director Of International Center Of Photography. 2017. [Speech].
Figure 1: Sutherst. 2017
Figure 2: Sutherst. 2017
Figure 3: Divided Self by Roger Ballen. 2017. Artnet.com [online]. Available at: http://www.artnet.com/artists/roger-ballen/divided-self-a-aAjqv09WCV6V6zuUiCsZCg2 [accessed 22 May 2017].
Figure 4: Sutherst. 2017