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Interview with Roger Ballen on his new book Shadow Chamber: Going fishing, metaphorically speaking

The South African photographer talks about his work, techniques and latest book

A geologist by training, the US-born photographer Roger Ballen is based in Johannesburg where he has spent the past 20-odd years photographing outlying South African villages and their inhabitants. His images of the rural poor invite comparison with the social engagement of Walker Evans, the abstraction of André Kertész and the eccentricity of Diane Arbus.

Over the last decade Ballen’s black and white photographs have gradually moved from straightforward documentary in Dorps (1986) and Plattenland (1994), towards a precisely layered, increasingly graphic, painterly and sculptural, quasi-fictional account of that environment. His often disturbing, haunting scenarios, spiked with humour, present a psycho-surreal picture of contemporary lives among marginalised, provincial, post-apartheid South Africans. On the publication of his fifth book, Shadow chamber, Roger Ballen spoke to The Art Newspaper.

The Art Newspaper: How would you describe your method or practice?

Roger Ballen: I compare it to fishing. When you’ve been down the river long enough, you know where to go to, what time of the year to go there. But there are times when you go back to the hole and nothing happens for months or years. Then, all of a sudden, they start biting again.

TAN: Are you searching for something specific?

RB: I just go with a fishing rod; I don’t try to think what kind of fish I’m going to catch. And I only know what kind of fish I have when my photos get developed. I don’t dream too much about the fish until I see it. It’s got to come out of the water.

TAN: Do you identify with your subjects?

RB: There’s something about their presence that speaks to me, because of the way they deal with time or the acceptance of their condition. There’s an honesty and truth to the way they behave; they’re very simple. There’s a true nobility in their naivete.

TAN: Is it all contrived?

RB: It always just happens. Broken bag (2003) [a boy holding a paper bag with a chicken falling out of it] was one little event, which attracted another little event, then somebody else pushed the boy forward and another one did something else, and before long somebody ripped a hole in the bag. You forget all the little things that happened on the way to that picture, because you’re just concentrating on watching the picture come together. What you’re looking at is just 1/500th of a second slice of reality.

TAN: What does the title of your book allude to?

RB: First, it’s a place we could imagine, on the edge of some town, in a run-down area, looking strange and eerie. It feels like it could be an old asylum or concentration camp. If you look, you can imagine what’s going on. But you never get into that place. It’s a place we visit in our dreams, but are instinctively afraid to enter. On the other hand, I think the real metaphor is Jungian. The shadow chamber is a room deeply embedded in the subconscious mind, filled with Jungian archetypes. It is present in all our minds.

TAN: Clearly that is psychologically challenging, but is it real?

RB: It is what happens when you enter this endlessly long, eerie, Kafkaesque building. These pictures are like walking through a long hallway, with big, cell-like rooms on either side. I knock on the door of each cell and open a door: there is the perpetrator. Sometimes I go into a room and there’s nobody there, just a bed or table. Really, that’s what this place looks like: a long hallway and endless rooms, made of concrete, with animals running in and out of doors, through the halls; but not lost in the same way that the people are lost.

TAN: Is there a measure of deliberately aesthetic elaboration?

RB: What is interesting about these pictures is the relationship of the photographic event to the visual iconography that pervades many of them. To come up with a meaning, one has to integrate the visual iconography—the drawings, the drips, the pieces of wire—with the photographic event, when somebody moves, or looks.

TAN: Platteland (1994) provoked death threats against you in South Africa; then, Outland (2001) was criticised for manipulating its subjects. Is your new work different?

RB: Well, the death threats have stopped. When I started doing Shadow chamber, I branched out into a part of me that had been repressed for about 30 years—the drawing side of myself, the painterly, artist side. All of a sudden, it just burst out into the open.