I discovered Roger Ballen as I was flipping through the pages of the Winter 2003 issue of Aperture. I was immediately struck by the images for their shocking honesty and brutality. The figures, the people in the images are at once disturbing, fascinating, and endearing. More often than not, they are worn creatures who have lived harsh, stark lives of poverty. They have unusual physical features—one might say abnormalities, retardation. Their skin is rugged, often dirty, and their faces asymmetrical. I feel as if I’ve seen these images before. I’m reminded of the Walker Evans Appalachia photographs. I think at first, perhaps these photos were taken in rural Mississippi, or some Wyoming or Nebraska backwater. For some reason I am quite surprised when I learn the images are from South Africa. Perhaps I tend to glamorize foreign soil. In my head, the foreign poor are more cultured, more sophisticated than the average American. Poverty abroad doesn’t look like American poverty. Although education and reason tell me otherwise, the remnants of colonialism and exoticism still invade my consciousness. The piercing white poverty I see in these photographs is perhaps more in line with a Dorothy Allison novel for me. I’m not quite sure what that says about my character, my psyche, my Americanism. There is a surfacing of something akin to shame when I view this body of work. The directness here strikes a very private cord in my own life, digs at the interior of my existence.
What I know about South Africa is that the landscape is beautiful. These images do not remind me of that beauty. I imagine these people living among a landscape that is cruel, severe, decaying. The other thing I know about South Africa is Apartheid. I try to bring in notions of race, of colonialism. The images are mostly of whites, but on occasion, a person of color enters the frame. I grapple with what the photographer may be attempting to suggest. I do not draw any conclusions. Perhaps I do not know enough about the history or culture of South Africa to make the political, the cultural connections. For me now, these photographs are about people, the passing of time, memories, the really deep, hidden memories that exist in some remote part of our collective consciousness. These images are extremely intimate. The viewer enters the psyche of the persons in the photos. It is almost as if their bodies are in a state of decay, and thus exposing fragments of the strange, animalistic mechanisms inside. I feel pain for them. I am not sure why I feel sorrow. There also exists happiness in these images. There are playful moments. Yet, I feel embarrassed. Perhaps they force me to consider myself, my own preconceived notions of beauty, of what it means to be human.
Part of me wants to know if the people are being exploited. The photos I learn are staged, which later becomes obvious upon inspection of the compositions. Do the models find the photo shoots novel? Do they trust Ballen with their secrets? Are they aware of the bleakness, the squalor of their lives? Are they willing participants in exposing it? These are the questions I ponder as I flip through Outland. I am curious about Ballen. Where does he come from? How does he come to know these people? I discover he has lived in South Africa for about 30 years, working as a geologist. His mother was a Manhattan gallerist, and thus a young Ballen was exposed to preeminent photographers at a young age (www.popmatters.com). Ballen began photographing in the predominantly white villages and towns, called dorps, in 1974. In Outland (2001) Ballen steps into the break between photojournalism and constructed art. His works disturb because what they take from the idiosyncrasies of local poor white culture, they give to the source of functional possibility, leaving an odd sense of dignity in their protagonists (www.popmatters.com). These fictions, these stories flirt with the surreal, and thus in a sense, liberate the viewer from any extreme social restraints, “allowing him/ her to boldly view the ugliness of poverty, the pathos of retardation, the primitiveness of cruelty within the sanctified auspices of a gallery context” (www.popmatters.com).
Few of Ballen’s works have been sold to a South African public. Many South African’s find the work morally questionable (www.popmatters.com). A deep-veined conservatism determines how many South Africans view photography as strictly journalistic, something that cannot and should not be manipulated. Ballen blurs the line between the documentary and the surreal fantasy, and thus stirs debate with his haunting images. This work is one that will linger in the corridors of my own psyche for quite some time.
Aperture. Winter 2003. New York.
Outland. Ballen, Roger. Phaidon Press Inc. New York. 2001.