Simon Cowling | The Infuriating Roger Ballen

The Infuriating Roger Ballen

May 13, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

©Roger BallenFrom the book Platteland

In the past ten years or so Roger Ballen has become a worldwide darling of the photography fine art circuit. His books, videos and installations are ubiquitous. So why do I find him infuriating?  Well, mainly because I do not like his pictures. But the annoying thing about Ballen is that he is intriguing. And undoubtedly talented. And so perhaps I should view his pictures with more interest and empathy than I do.

I guess it has a lot to do with first impressions. If I had been introduced to Ballen's work in the past few years, I would probably have a different take on the matter, but the first time I became aware of his photography was quite a while ago, when he came to notice in 1994 for his book Platteland. The pictures were obviously meant to shock, but rather than shock me they made me angry. I saw the book then, and still do, as a collection of photographs purely intended to enhance the photographer's reputation as a fearless documenter of "the truth" when in reality (to me) it was nothing but an exploitation of a defenceless group of unfortunates. Google Books describes it thus: Stark duotone portrait photographs capture the hidden world of South Africa's impoverished white inhabitants of the "plattelands," revealing a ravaged world of social and economic isolation, disease, poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment.

Ballen documents his foray into the Plattelands in great detail (doth he protest too hard I wonder?), and argues the point that the white Afrikaans trash, for want of a better word, are a legitimate anthropological sub-species worthy of recording; the dregs of the once-powerful South African white rulers who no longer had the patronage of their wealthier, more successful cousins. Well, maybe so, but for me, when I saw the photographs, I couldn't help but thinking that these were possibly the most exploitative and prurient photographs I had ever seen of a society that did not have the wits to tell the man to go fuck himself. So yes, Roger and I got off to a bad start, you might say.

©Roger BallenFrom Platteland Am I being too sensitive? I don't know. Diane Arbus was rightly hailed for her photographs of people on the edges of society, and I don't have anywhere near as much trouble with her work. She seemed to have so much more empathy with her subjects, a respect and gentleness that I find so lacking in Ballen's pictures. I think my problem with the Platteland monograph is that it is so focussed on just one disadvantaged community in one location, so to speak, which seems to me a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. 

Having said all that, there can be no doubt that Ballen is a fine photographer, and thus my dilemma about disliking his work in the face of so many supposedly qualified critics who lionise him. And then there's Ballen the person. He is possibly a very engaging and witty chap, but his public persona suggests otherwise if any of the interviews and videos I've seen of him are anything to go by. He takes himself extremely seriously. He sees himself as a photographic "purist", using only film as opposed to digital, and shooting only in black and white. Of course. It is the chosen modus of many self-proclaimed "serious" photographers and often used as a justification in itself when it comes to the importance of their work. Am I a cynic? When it comes to this, yes. Film only, B&W only - give me a break. And so Rog and I part company once more.

So on now to his latest work. He moved from photographing drooling idiots in the Platteland to photographing people on the very edges of existence in South African slum dwellings (notice a theme here?). His photography is dark, strange, dangerous and moody, inhabited by the seemingly  dangerous and deranged denizens of shanty towns and filthy abandoned buildings.

©Roger BallenImage from Outlands Since his early works in this area Ballen has gone on to more complicated setups; where at first he shot the people and surroundings of these ghettos in a more documentary style, he has gone on to setting up entire sets and scenarios, sometimes illustrating the walls with his own artwork and drawings and sometimes getting the inhabitants to draw on the walls and furniture; he often props the scene with old bits of junk he picks up at op-shops and garbage sites, or with the animals, vermin and birds that live around and with the residents. The whole effect is thus doubly surreal; the real setting and people are in themselves other-worldly enough, but with Ballen's set-dressing and the careful placement of his subjects and props he has entered an entirely new world. And whilst I still don't particularly "like" the images much, I do now see intellect behind them, and the intriguing unfolding of what is clearly a very complex, and, I would suggest, somewhat troubled, mind. So yes, I see completely where the art illuminati are coming from, and why Ballen can command the respect and fees he is now getting. But I'm still unsettled by what I continue to view as the exploitation of a disadvantaged group of people, and wonder if I've totally misread his images and intentions or whether the king really is naked.  As I said, infuriating.

©Roger BallenFrom his latest book Asylum of the Birds


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