Roger Ballen: Ballenesque Interview

“Archetypal symbols from the human subconscious dominate my imagery.”

I chose to reference a modern psychological house or hotel of horrors in which to situate this interview with Roger. I did not feel that I could express the way his work infects my thoughts by regurgitating historical tract or placing uncomfortable cultural analysis on his methodology. That has been covered may times in the past and the work needs less and less validation as one becomes more and more familiar with it. There are questions, but with those already answered, it felt somehow more palatable to speak about it with Roger through symbolism. I appreciate that he took the time and effort to work with what I presented him. I wanted theater and theater I got. Sincere thank you to Roger.

BF: “Tony is the little boy that lives in my mouth”

I feel like I never really understood you or your symbols. There was some desire to place you in a context-a construct of my own reality as if filtered through the commodification of my artistic interest in death externalized by my own architecture in pithy incongruent misgivings of self-loathing and a disobedient compassion for things that make other people look away. I wanted to place you in this box with me, but I never wanted a dialogue. I wanted to retreat, like Tony into my stomach as Danny. I am older now. I have found less compassion in myself, but have justified this with an ability to recognize in others the solipsism that binds us all to the chain of being human-the one-point perspective, the orange carpet and the inevitable moldy shower curtain pinned to the skin of the woman in room 237.


Our future environments are cast from the mold of our youth. We extract and interpret and fabricate our necessities that have been previously dictated to us through our wanders through basements and attics alone and unsure, the single solitary light bulb our only friend-the belief that we have an extra three seconds to run up those creaky stairs before darkness tries to grapple with our untied shoes. It is a reversal of an excavation-it comes from Tony’s home, leaving small chapped lips, catching ever so slightly on the baby teeth we have yet to lose. “Are you lost”? “I’m just …will say anything to you”. “Tell lies”? “Anything”.  How were you as Danny? A life…has beginnings…where did you find your symbols?

Please recount your genesis with photography, including your mother’s influence with Magnum. Perhaps speak to us a bit about your travels, Kertesz and South Africa. Did America make your eyes?

RB: A shadow runs through my work. The shadow spreads, grows deeper as I move on, grow older. The shadow is no longer indistinguishable from the person they call Roger. I track my shadow (life) through these images.

It is always difficult to exactly know why one ended up the way one has. Life is not a straight line, nor can we remember all the subtle influences that pushed us in one direction or another. Besides the factors of day to day life, there is something to be said about our genes that separate one living thing from another.

My mother joined Magnum in the late 1960’s and worked as an assistant to some of the most famous photographers in the world.  A few years later she started one of the first photographic Galleries New York.

My mother’s passion for photography had a deep influence on me. On the walls of the house were great photographs and the photo books were everywhere. By the time I was 18 years old I had a heightened awareness of what comprised an important photograph.

One of her favorite photographers was Andre Kertesz who I often stated, taught me that photography could be an art form.

BF: ”Now Hold your eyes still so I can see”.  “When you were brushing your teeth, do you remember if you smelled anything funny”?

I remember my grandfather’s garage. It was place of ritual, though the ritual I never saw, but I felt the presence or the dwindling aura of its movement. I can still place the hum of wasps in the rafters, the warm summer air being cooled in my lungs as I examine coffee cans full of screws, nails, and teeth-marked pencils with hard erasers and chipped yellow shafts. The door is open, slightly blinding me when I look back towards the rafters. In the rafters is an unused dog coffin before they were chic. It was maroon. I was told my uncle’s basement also had a dead kitten sealed in a mason jar. I never saw it, but I also never pulled the cord of the light bulb below ground level. The garage is still here now in me, in all the splendor and decay of the American automobile-oil and rubber tires, still too short to see inside as I creep around the exterior-the possibilities were always somehow unnerving. “What’s the next thing you remember after brushing your teeth”? “My mom saying wake up wake up Danny wake up” “I don’t want to talk about Tony anymore”. Why do you retreat…who are you looking for…there is a point in which we shed our winter fur…and collect our baby teeth under pillows cyclically sponsoring dreams and nightmares of inevitable servitude….



This is to play perhaps on Jung and the mysticism of symbols in forming an aesthetic…the boyhood images to the epiphanic shift in your work that happened after Platteland and around Outland…


Archetypal symbols from the human subconscious dominate my imagery.  It is partly because of this aspect of my imagery that people react to my photography wherever they are shown.

Beginning in 1995, after the Platteland Publication, I initiated a project titled Outland.  During this transforming period (1995-2000), I started to view myself as an artist/photographer. My photographs ceased being portraits in the traditional sense of the word, becoming instead images in which my subjects, both animal and human, were actors part of a silent theatre staged in a minimalist world. The photographs I shot during this period transcended the documentary and ultimately could be defined as a Theatre of the Absurd.

BF: I come from rock, if that comes from nothing, where do I go from here? “Don’t Want to”. “Now tony, tell me”. “I’m not esposed to”. “Its like I go to sleep when he shows me things, but when I wake up I can’t remember everything” And man is a fertile soil in which these images manifest. There is no locus of control in which to barter with. They. Are. Inherent. Eons stretched out in an intricate fallacy under the guise of which he weaves webs for himself like the spider and its thread. Each layer overlaps until it creates a microcosmic universe of self-belief and self-denial in equal measure. And which web wears you? Born from primordial sludge, which symbol validates your existence? Perhaps it is the bird or the rat-the phoenix or the vessel of pestilence-a byline of obscure convalescence. Do tell of your anima(l)? You have spent time in the great belly of the earth, the womb and the hearth. It would be abnormal not speak of it, the subterranean, the fingernails left scratched and hanging on the walls like fragments of being where the cave paintings were found, embedded in a diamond-like mystique.



I am hinting at your time in the mines as it parallels the tableaux you create. The rooms or settings you create are rooms in a house or a hotel or a prison or an asylum, certainly. However, there is a context between the claustrophobic frame and being in the mines.

RB: I think the claustrophobic spaces of my photographs can be thought of as metaphors of ‘the mind.’  The mind is a dark, strange, enigmatic place; hard to make sense of, almost impossible to fathom. If my photographs parallel this reality, then they are likely to challenge the viewers perception of him or herself.

BF: Obviously when you develop in an animal body, localized in space and time, you are given limitations with which your psychology develops, until a point in which it unlocks uncontrollably and pushes in an indeterminate, but new direction. The continuum manifests into a vacuum, draining external modalities associated with the brave nest or incubation period in which non-genus nomenclature creates an environmental fold, creating an echo in the atmosphere of the vacuum.  And here Danny’s tongue is caught between sobs and his own interior world in which Tony constantly pushes forward into his mouthpiece. “If the weather breaks, we might be able to get down the mountain” “Danny, Everything is ok, just go play in your room for awhile” …



We come to a point in photography where the manacles of representation are sawn off along with the limb. I want to ask you about perception and document in your earlier works to the point of rebellion that occurred later on. I sense a dissatisfaction with trying to relate to people through the camera and a burgeoning necessity to see the work with only one set of eyes-to limit communication of the normalized tropes of photography for that of an abstracted, yet personal investigation. You have stopped mining the outside world for one that is completely internal. How do you relate to not relating to the world outside and yet you speak on the universal….

RB: The mechanism by which I create my photographs is quite mysterious. I almost never have an idea or goal in mind, never plan my photographs; yet relying on one’s dreams and imagination alone will not guarantee a successful image.   The process literally involves thousands of steps, ultimately giving birth to a creation that is a life.   There are an infinite number of possibilities that lie in front of a camera. That is what makes photography so difficult; there is no limit to the variables.


“I think the claustrophobic spaces of my photographs can be thought of as metaphors of ‘the mind.’  The mind is a dark, strange, enigmatic place; hard to make sense of, almost impossible to fathom.”



BF: “What was the Donner party” “ You mean they ate each other up” “Don’t worry mom I know all about cannibalism, I saw it on TV” . Inhospitable castigation. “White man’s burden, Lloyd, my man, white man’s burden”.

There is often an upending of reason within how others see others seeing you seeing them-it is an aggression that unfolds into farce and the comedy of theatrical interpretation.  You are familiar with otherness. And anti-psychiatry. Your images featured in Platteland have caused some amount of controversy for their use of what gets mandated as voyeurism by the lamentable by the intellectual community. I struggle with this assessment of your images. However, the image “Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal, 1993” seems to be the image that you rightly point out, that you will be most known for. I always find images like this something of a mirror for whoever gazes into it. I want to suggest that though I may understand why it is difficult for some audiences and why they may feel it is exploitative, I actually find it quite direct and without judgment. I am sure you are passed caring about these themes, but can you give any insight on what it might be like to deal with audiences that have found your images exploitative?

RB: When my book Platteland, Images from Rural South Africa first appeared, I was quite shocked and astonished about the attention that it received. As photography had up to this point in time been a hobby, I was quite unprepared for the criticism I received. Over time, I came to better understand this reaction as one that emanated from individuals that could not come to terms with aspects of their psyche that this image brought out.



BF: You write very eloquently about the backlash in the book. One follow up question for you that I have though is for you to define the portrait experience itself. I want to know about Dresie and Casie. I already know about their mother giving you permission to make the image, but what can you tell me about them, even if limited in scope from one position? “You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know sir. I’ve always been here”.

RB: Both Dresie an Casie were quite fascinated and enamored by the fact that I was taking their photograph. Although they had difficulty in expressing themselves, they were excited to see me each time I would visit them.  They competed to lead me to a different place in their home that they hoped I would photograph.  My photographs that I gave them were hammered tightly with nails to their bedroom walls.




BF: A hotel is compartmentalized, not altogether different to an asylum, which differs from a prison in the scope of how Jeremy Bentham and the introduction of architectural control with his Panopticon promoted the idea that inhabitants are to be monitored at all times within the prison, which also happens with Ponte Tower. The hotel is a transient location. The asylum is between prison and hotel. It is a place in which we store otherness, which Deleuze and Guattari spoke about in “1000 Platteaus” and how otherness is marginalized by the capitalist discourse. There is an analogy to this with how poor rural South Africans are also marginalized and how difference or otherness is presented. The analogy of John the “Cat Catcher” presents an exemplary case between these systems. “Some places are like people: some shine and some don’t”.



RB: In every photograph I take, the subject whether it might be a person, animal, or drawing have to jump, or be electric.  The viewer should feel instantaneously jolted.  This is a certain sign that the image has entered the realm of the unconscious mind.

If this contact that I have described above occurs than then it could be stated that there is not longer ‘otherness’ between the viewer and the subject. In other words, the subjects have entered our being

BF: South Africa before you shifted your focus inward bears the weight of Apartheid, of class war and of racial tension. Is it possible to speak about your work without the weight of these systems weighing upon it? How influenced are you by this environment at present? “Do you like this hotel” “Yes, I do. I love it. Don’t you” “I guess so” “Good. I want you to like it here. I wish we could stay here forever …and ever…and ever”



RB: My images have never been motivated by political or cultural concerns rather by psychological and existential issues.  Beckett rather than Arbus was an inspirational figure.  It is always difficult to know exactly why one is attracted to a place…no difference to one prefers one smell or color over another.  When I enter the places that I photograph I feel I have entered my own mental house.

BF: “Remember what Mr. Holloran said. Its like pictures in a book, Danny.  It isn’t real”. An Invocation. A Possession. Cy Twombly’s ghost strewn in pieces amidst the wires of your fascination. Its just like pictures in the book. But we must digress towards natural order and the complacency of human values placed on their relationship to the ornithological-A home for wayward birds. A home for abandoned children. You have a profound passage in the book about how we as humans pretend at empathy with animals. I think it’s a very important passage that speaks also about how we see each other. Can you elaborate on your view of the fundamental fallacies associated with how we pretend to relate to our animal friends as outlined in your thoughts regarding “Asylum of the Birds”? And nobody asked of the snake with a finger jammed in its throat, jaws unable to lock accepting the girth of the boy’s finger….

RB: The relationship between the animal and human is one that might be described as a profound holocaust. It is one of dominance, destruction, and exploitation that is that is the result of human genetics  Modern western societies do their best to disguise this relationship with their care of dogs and cats, endless causes that claim to ameliorate the situation, but the sorry fundamentals characterizing this relationship continue to pervade every aspect of the planet.



BF: Prison Graffiti. Towards the ether. “When the place was built in 1907, there was very little interest in winter sports. And this site was chosen for its seclusion and scenic beauty”.

  • Injured Guest: “Great party, isn’t it”?
  • Mediumship. One step away from Table-rapping. The Fox Sisters were from New York. Lilydale is also a state of mind, not a geographical mecca for itinerant beliefs. Its tail precedes its head and its head is thinly veiled and transparent. I spent my formative years kicking the hands of haunted house volunteers out of a despair that they were not horrific, nor scary. I remember, they were not enough anymore. I needed in them the distance to afford an abstraction in which I could place a firmament of unreal coils upon my brow in order to push against the unknown harder with fierce teeth and labored breathing. I needed more in less. The theatre is an adjustment without actors. You have to draw from their form and their anima, which they give readily to the asking. Can the spirit be an active subject -an agent for your imagination or is it a fleeting apparition in your will to control the mechanics of your hand over that of your apparatus? Please tell us about conjuring spirit photographs….

RB: Spirits pervade and haunt the human psyche from an early age until they are finally liberated at death.  The challenge for me has always been to materialize the invisible.  It is hard to fathom whether these spirits are embodied inside or outside of us…whether they are embodiments of my soul or other beings.


Roger Ballen


Thames & Hudson

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Roger Ballen.)

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