Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Q&A: Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen is a South African photo-artist who found some notoreity in the mid-90s with his pictures of poorer whites in South Africa. Since then, he's collaborated with these types of folks on more Joel-Peter Witkinesque/Ralph Eugene Meatyard–like scenes. This week, OCAD's Professional Gallery opens a 25-year survey of his work, which should be useful for charting the transition from Avedonesque portraiture to dreamlike doom. Today the National Post published my Q&A with him online; tomorrow's print edition should run same with more images. (There's no "esques" in the article, which I'm glad of. Must be a later-ing-the-day suffix infection.) Text is also after the jump.

Questions & Artists: Roger Ballen's South Africa
Leah Sandals, National Post
Published: Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A few years ago, Condé Nast Traveller readers voted South Africa as having the most beautiful scenery in the world. But for renowned New York-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen, it's the less picturesque side of life there that appeals. Now, as a show of his psychologically gripping images opens at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Ballen tells Leah Sandals about animals, archetypes, boarding houses and more.

Q Over the years, you've shifted from traditional documentary work to a more experimental staging of fantastical images. Why?

A Well, it didn't happen overnight. I'm 58 years old, and I've been doing photography at least 40 years now. So it's hard to say. The gradual shifting began about 1996 when I started to interact more with subjects and take things into my hands more. Somewhere in that period I started to think of myself more as an artist-photographer and wanted to go beyond just documenting something. I wanted the images to carry more of my personal style, to extend the meaning of the image.

Q Your most recent book, launching in Canada on April 8, is called Boarding House. What's it about?

A I think I've integrated new, personal imagery that brings a new set of meanings to the boarding house. What defines a boarding house more than anything else is its transience, it being a place where people come and go. But it can also, in these photographs, be a place in the human psyche, a Jungian concept, an archetype.

Q Your mother was a photo editor at Magnum, and you've been taking photographs since the 1970s. Yet you've worked in geology all your life. Why?

A I don't work in geology much any more. But for 30 years I did. I've worked all over Africa looking for different mineral deposits: gold, copper and so on. It was an interesting job and took me to strange places. I also found working in nature is an inspiration, something to emulate on all levels.

The photography market has changed a lot, too. Up to about 1995 there was hardly any market for photographic prints, and then the market exploded. When I did the book Platteland in 1994, it was very controversial and became known in more places in the world. The book depicted poorer whites in South Africa in a way that the media picked up on. That made me start to think I should take photography more seriously as a profession.

Q I wanted to ask you about that controversy. What do you say to those who think Platteland and later images are exploitative of the poor?

A I've been accused of that. But if I look at everyday images in the paper and on TV, I just scratch my head sometimes and think what I did was minor.

Firstly, I don't know one human being that isn't exploited and exploiter. So I think people have to look at their own actions before they criticize others. Secondly, the people in the book were overjoyed to be in it. It gave them a boost, a sense of importance. What's exploitative and not exploitative is a fine line; both parties here have gained from a rapport. The media created the issue.

Q In your more recent images, there are just as many animals as humans. What do animals mean to you?

A Animals are more complex in some ways; you can't put your finger on the animal, what he thinks or what he means. Even if you have a dog for 15 years, you can't quite understand how dogs think.

Q You lived in South Africa through the end of apartheid. Do you think your images reflect that major historical shift in some way?

A I don't. I'm a person more interested in aesthetics, and I have a psychological view of the world rather than a sociocultural view of the world. Granted, I've lived [in South Africa] permanently since '82 and obviously the experiences I've had have rubbed off on my in all sorts of ways.

Q What do you find most compelling about life in South Africa?

A I think that one of the more interesting things is it's a first and a third world country. I'm sitting now in a first world office, but one kilometre away there are people sleeping on the street, cooking on the street, 10 to a room. There's a line here that you can't get away from, and there's a constant tension between these elements.

-Roger Ballen: Boarding House continues to May 31 at the OCAD Professional Gallery. Visit for details.

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