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For over fifty years, South African photographer Roger Ballen has had a strong and sustained visual signature. His work has continued to evolve, from documentary, to installation, to performance; from black-and-white prints to music video. The result is a creative signature so individual that it’s required the coining of a new term: Ballenesque.


Few photographers in the past fifty years have had such a strong and sustained visual signature as Roger Ballen. Yet the work itself has always continued to evolve, from documentary, to installation, to performance; from black-and-white prints to music video. The result is a creative signature so individual that it’s required the coining of a new term: Ballenesque.  

Born in New York City in 1950, Roger Ballen studied psychology at the University of California, and later received a PhD from the Colorado School of Mines, specialising in Mineral Economics. In 1982, he emigrated to South Africa to work as a geologist. While photography was to remain his driving creative focus, his work as a geologist freed him from financial reliance on the art world and its markets. It was an independence that allowed him to develop one of the most extraordinary photographic practices of the post-war era.  

His early series were documentary. In Dorps, first published in 1986, he documented the small towns and villages scattered across rural South Africa. Platteland, published eight years later, bore witness to the marginalised whites scraping a living far from the cities, images considered an affront to the racial supremacism of the apartheid regime. Dorps focused on place, Platteland on people. Yet even then, the elements that were to characterise the Ballenesque are clearly apparent.

Bedroom of a Railway Worker, De Aar, 1984 from the series Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa

The strange arrangement of objects, wires dividing the image plain, the ambivalent relationship of people and animals. And even more fundamentally, the formal composition of the work. Always a flat, impenetrable wall without window or door through which to escape. The frame of the image, far from leading the imagination outwards, acts as a barrier, emphasising dislocation from the exterior world.

With Outland (2001) and later Shadow Chamber (2005) came a shift from documentary to something more performative, more constructed. The people in Outland no longer passively present themselves to the camera; they act out. The rectilinear frame and the flat walls become ever more theatrical. In Shadow Chamber, people begin the fade from the scene. Graffiti makes an appearance and, always, a curious tension between form and disarray, between artifice and actuality. These are not comfortable images. The spectres of poverty, disorder, and violence haunt them with a tacit implication of complicity. Discomfort is a luxury of the comfortable.

Cat Catcher 1998 from the series Outland

For Ballen, confusion and chaos are critical metaphors for the human condition, yet he describes himself as a ‘visual organiser’. Starting without preconceived ideas, he builds and rearranges the elements in his images. In a synthesis of the directorial and the intuitive, he seeks to let his conscious and unconscious minds creatively collaborate. His task, as he puts it, is “to perceive the flux as it moves from one point to another”. This paradox of striving to organise chaos animates Roger Ballen’s imagery: neither the fey aspiration of the quixotic nor the futile determination of Sisyphus, but a creative act that – in its process, as much as its products – captures the unresolvable contradictions of the human experience.

(L) Tommy, Samson and a Mask, 2000 from the series Outland
(R) Head Inside Shirt, 2001 from the series Shadow Chamber


Over the next decade – through two more solo series Boarding House (2009) and Asylum of the Birds (2014), collaborations with the Danish computer artist Asger Carlsen (No Joke, 2016) and the Dutch graphic artist Hans Lemmen (Unleashed, 2017), and a music video made with Die Antwoord (I Fink U Freeky, 2012) – Ballen has continued to explore the littoral flux that ebbs and flows between the solid ground of perception and the unplumbed depths of the unconscious.

(L) Boarding House 2008 from the series Boarding House
(R) Five Hands 2006 from the series Asylum of the Birds

His most recent series, Roger the Rat, introduces a new actor to the stage, one with a name and speaking role. The exact relationship between the eponymous rodent and his creator remains ambiguous. Roger the Human has described the drive to take photographs as a way to better understand himself. But whether the Rat is analyst, advocate or alter ego remains without explication.

Smoked Out, 2020 from the series Roger the Rat

Roger Ballen is currently establishing a centre for the arts in Johannesburg called, with appropriate convolutions of meaning, The Inside Out Centre. The centre, due to open in early 2022, will present visual media with a relationship to Africa and particular relevance to South Africans. Importantly, it will focus on work that has a psychological effect on the viewer: that echoes or evolves the Ballenesque.

The Inside Out Centre (interior view)

I will leave the final words to the man himself:

“As I enter my early seventies, the passage of time becomes my foremost concern. I cannot help feeling that – because there are so many parts to the puzzle – life will never, in any way, be understandable. It is crucial to me that I create images, that my images have a life of their own, and that they reveal themselves when I am not present. Photography has been the best way in which I am able to distil the essence of my life on this planet. Metaphorically, the images that I have created will ultimately become my fossils.”


About the author

Dr. Alasdair Foster is a writer, researcher and award-winning curator who works worldwide. He is an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University, Ambassador to the Asia-Pacific PhotoForum, and publisher of Talking Pictures – interviews with photographers around the world. He has twenty years’ experience heading national arts institutions in Europe and Australia, over thirty-five years of working in the public cultural sector and, until recently, was Professor of Culture in Community Wellbeing at The University of Queensland. 


Roger Ballen

Roger the Rat is showing at Head On Photo Festival in Paddington Reservoir Gardens from 19-28 November 2021, daily.

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Image detail: Gary Ramage