An interview with Roger Ballen

Photographer Roger Ballen talks to Creative Review about his latest monograph, Asylum of the Birds, and why he thinks that films are now the best way to advertise books…

Photographer Roger Ballen talks to Creative Review about his latest monograph, Asylum of the Birds, and why he thinks that films are now the best way to advertise books…

Asylum of the Birds is Ballen’s 12th book, and features images shot in a house in Johannesburg, where a group of people live alongside large numbers of wild birds and other animals. A certain wildness feels inherent to the house: its rooms are largely derelict and its inhabitants regularly make drawings directly onto the walls – these sketches, alongside the people and birds, form a central element to Ballen’s work. In his images, the turmoil and exuberance of the place are channelled into a series of portraits and tableaux that are a mix of documentary and conceptual art.

Asylum of the Birds was over five years in the making, but Ballen has known about the house for over ten years, first visiting it when working on his previous books Boarding House and Shadow Chamber. Over this period Ballen built up a strong relationship with the people who live there. “You can’t work in these places in a milliion years if you don’t have a good relationship with the people,” he says. “You’re just going to end up in bad trouble within a day – you’ll get your stuff stolen, or get thrown out, or get hit, or something bad will happen.

“So you can’t work in that environment unless you have good relationships with the people and with the guy that runs the place, and everybody gains from the experience. You can’t just go in there and take pictures every day and walk out and not give anybody anything in return, it’s got to be a two-way street.”

Ballen has long documented those on the margins of life in South Africa, stretching back to Dorps, published in 1986, a book of photographs of poor white communities in rural South African, which caused a storm of controversy on its release.

While these early images are often viewed as pure documentary, Ballen has always been a formalist, with composition central to his work. The images in his latest book are a mixture of arranged composition combined with the ‘decisive moment’ of documentary.

“They’re much more dense, much more complex, but they’re still pictures made through photography, and really the most important concept in photography is the moment, the feeling that the picture can’t be repeated,” he says. “You’re defining something that’s an authentic situation…. There are some still lives in there but even with the still lives it’s about catching a sensibility through the camera in a microsecond that integrates something to transform what’s there to a higher moment.”

The creation of the images is a slow process. “Sometimes a picture happens within two hours,” he says, “sometimes you work on it. I work five afternoons a week usually, and most of the pictures you get right within three days or three afternoons, or they just don’t come right, you don’t get them. It’s like fishing, sometimes you go out there with the best intentions in the world and come back with no fish…. It’s a very complex process.

“It’s all in my frame of mind, it’s nothing else,” he continues. “It’s no different than a writer sitting down and writing a novel, or Picasso drawing a picture. It really doesn’t have much to do with out there…. It’s back to the blank canvas, or some sort of chaotic mess and you’ve got to transform it into a coherent photographic concept.”

Ballen creates all his work on film and has been using the same camera – a Rolleiflex – for the past 30 years. “I grew up in a film world,” he says, “and I just like the concrete-ness of film, the mystery of film, the value of film. The experience of film – all these things. It’s really just a part of what I do. It doesn’t mean I can’t take pictures with a digital camera, I can do that easily, but I like the fact that you come back and it’s on film, and I have the negatives, I have the contact sheets, there’s something special to me personally.”

Despite this adherence to a certain photographic tradition, Ballen has recently been embracing video, both shooting it himself and also using it to promote his stills work. Two years ago, he directed a video for Die Antwoord which featured his signature style, and the promo was a huge success online, garnering over 45 million views. For the publication of Asylum of the Birds, he collaborated with director Ben Jay Crossman to create a film to promote the book. Shot at the house featured in the photographs, it offers a new dimension to Ballen’s images, and is a fascinating piece of work in itself.

“It gives people a sense of place,” Ballen says of the film. “It helps them better understand the pictures, because the pictures are just glimpses of reality. I think the film gives people background and dimension to the photographs, which is a good thing.”

He sees film as a vital tool for promoting books online, now that we have largely lost the habit of going to bookshops to discover new titles. “People just don’t come into contact with books like they used to,” he says, “so you’ve got to supplement their interest in a way they are used to, which is through computers and the internet, not going down to the bookstore and sitting around looking through the books. People’s habits aren’t that way. So for me it’s important to do video with the works, so when I get further down the line on the next project, I’ll do my best to create another video.”

Ballen is also experimenting with new ways of exhibiting his work. “I also create installations now, so people can walk into a room that looks like a Roger Ballen photograph,” he says. “And that gives people another dimension to what I do, so this is also something I’ve put a lot of time and energy into.

“So I keep on expanding and expanding, which makes it challenging and gratifying,” he concludes. “For me, that’s what art’s always been about, just a personal journey that I’ve done out of passion, you know?”

Asylum of the Birds is published by Thames & Hudson. For more info on the book, click here.

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