As I prepared to meet one of the most prolific photographers of the 20th century, the only question in mind was: how does one begin interviewing a man who’s career spans over two lifespans? Counting how long I’ve been alive that is! It’s a Tuesday morning and I am back at Gallery Momo in Parktown, north of Johannesburg, to meet Roger Ballen who currently has The House Project on display. The exhibition opened on the 21st of January 2016 and will be on display until the 28th of February before it makes its way to the gallery’s Cape Town Space on the 24th of March. The gallery’s staff is always friendly to my now regular visits and help me prepare for the interview as we wait for Roger to arrive. Once Roger arrives, he lets me know that he has another appointment to attend. I thank him for his time and we start the interview right after a serving of Rooibos with honey. This is how it went.
Shots011: Who is Roger Ballen?
RB: Well, I am not quite sure, or absolutely clear about whom Roger is. I’ve spent 65 years trying to figure it out. Roger is a photographer born in New York City and I have been in South Africa for the last thirty or forty years.
Shots011: Your work seems to be centred in self-discovery, do you feel each project throughout your life has been a quest on self-discovery and why?
RB: Definitely, each project has been a process of self-discovery. My work has always been psychologically driven, finding my identity within the confines of myself or within the confines of the so-called human condition. I have never seen myself as a, particularly political or social documentary photographer. There are periods in my life, for example in the Dorps (1986) and Platteland (1994) periods, when the work had a documentary aspect to it, but the fundamental drive behind the work had a more existential focus about it.
Shots011: Those two projects were then followed up by Outland, what inspired that project?
RB: I have never really worked with inspiration. I always worked with focus, passion, discipline, and commitment to photography. Inspiration can only get you so far, then it’s about drawing to the discipline, and focus, and passion for getting you through the work. Most of my projects have been about five years, so the overall passion has been 1) the passion for photography and 2) the passion for finding out more about my identity at any particular period in time.
Shots011: How much of that has kept you going throughout your career?
RB: It has been the main thing. This is a hard job, unlike a simple job where you can sit in an office all day looking at the watch on your screen or driving from here to there. Making great photographs takes a tremendous amount of concentration, imagination and commitment. It’s year after year. It’s really a personal journey; it’s not something you can go into the office and talk about.
You have to go out there with the camera and do the work. It’s not something society is overly enthusiastic about like making a new iPhone or creating a new restaurant. I have never worked as a commercial photographer nor work for a so-called market.
It has been out of my own passion for photography and passion for finding the answers to the difficult questions
Shots011: Do you feel you have found the answers?
RB: If you really going through complicated questions you may say you think you found the answer for yourself but may be debatable for other people. I think I have come to some kind of basic conclusions about the human condition and my own condition. These are still very complex questions and the questions are framed in words and the answers come through photographs. There is a fundamental dichotomy in many ways between how the words are framed, the meaning of words and the meanings of my pictures. Good pictures don’t actually have words that are necessarily appropriate to them.
Shots011: When and why did you take it to primitivism and the drawings?
RB: Beginning of 2003 or so, the actual physical human subjects tended to disappear from the work and they were replaced by more animals, drawing, installation pieces, and paintings which were integrated into the confines of a particular space, again and most importantly through photography. It doesn’t mean just because there is not another person in it, that the work didn’t have the same purpose. The methodology transformed itself from one period to the next and continues to do so, but it is just an extension of the previous projects.
The roots of that period went back as far as the late sixties and seventies; it wasn’t something that just happened overnight. It was a result of being involved in photography for thirty or forty years.
Shots011: You also directed Die Antwoord’s I Fink U Freeky music video, how did that come about?
RB: Die Antwoord approached me in 2005/6 and wanted to work with me on a few projects. They told me that at the time, they had given up who they were in terms of a band for nearly a year after they saw my work. They then reinvented themselves as Die Antwoord and they said frequently that in some subtle way I was responsible for Die Antwoord.
They were very excited about what I did and they incorporated some of my aesthetic into their work. We had regular contact and talked about how we would collaborate on particular projects and this culminated into the I Fink You Freaky Video.
RB: Well put it this way, on the back of the book it says; your mind is your house or your house is your mind. The issues of the house or home are metaphoric issues. There is a house you live in every day. There is your human body that you might want to call your house. There is planet earth that you might call your home. There are the galaxies above which might be part of a larger home for you.
The House concept is very complex and very metaphoric. I guess there is always a need to continue searching for the meaning of these ideas and to try to find a place for you that answers a lot of the questions. The word is very complicated. My home is Johannesburg but it’s not the only home in a way. It’s one of a many of homes where some are very abstract and some very simple.
Shots011: Looking back at your career, what is the one thing you wish you knew when you started?
RB: That is a very good question. I have been doing this now for 50 years. I guess there is always two parts of the side to picture-making; the one side is your own commitment to doing the work which has been very gratifying and a lot of hard work. I am so happy that I did this. It has been a shining light in my life and something that has been able to put things together for me. I always say I am very lucky that I have had this focus that many talented, intelligent, and creative people out there who don’t have a camera or don’t know what to do with their creativity. I was lucky that I was able to channel it through photography. I have been through a lot of different phases in photography from the sixties to now. I have seen how people relate to photography in different ways.
If I start to think about the things I would’ve liked to know at the beginning of my career, it would be from my mother who was part of Magnum and worked with people such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliot Erwitt. So when I was younger I got to meet some of the most famous photographers in the world and my mother always said; “Whatever you do Roger, don’t become a professional photographer.” So my mother actually gave me the best advice. I am very happy that I didn’t make a career out of this. I have a PhD in Geology and my career was in geological exploration.
When I talk to young people, I say the best advice I can give you is; “if you want to be an art photographer, just find yourself another career.” It’s almost impossible to survive as an art photographer. You have better chances selling banana on the streets than making it in this business.
Shots011: Please tell us a bit about the Roger Ballen Award.
RB: The Roger Ballen Foundation started about ten years ago. The purpose of the foundation was to increase the understanding of art and the aesthetic of photography in Southern Africa. We had different events and organized important photographers to share and give talks.
I thought what would be really interesting is if someone could look at my pictures and try somehow identify and transform them in their own way and create what I think is artistic work. If they are able to do this and do this well, they might stand a chance to win the prize, which is an opportunity to attend Paris Photo. Paris Photo is by far the most important photo fair in the world. Just being exposed to so many galleries, publishers and the event, it would give them a whole different view of international photography.
I think the award would be very beneficial to the winner of the contest. I am really happy with the idea and I hope to see some really good pictures.
Shots011: Is there a friend or contemporary who has work you admire?
RB: I am not somebody who necessarily looks at one artist or looks at two or three artists. I am interested in art that came out of the caves thirty to thirty-five thousand years ago. I am interested in some contemporary art in some of the museums. I am interested in Picasso and Hieronymus Bosch. I am interested in a wide range of work so I don’t necessarily have favorites.
I’ve always said, and still, l say it to this day; you really don’t need to go to museums to see art. Art is a difficult word to describe. I think you can find some of the most interesting things by walking and looking around. Sometimes it’s in a museum, sometimes in a gallery, sometimes it’s somebody doing something in front of you in the metro in Paris or New York.
I don’t really have anything or anybody I can say this is above everything else. I have gone through different periods in my life where this artist or this photographer was more relevant to me than the next period then I moved on.
To be honest I am just as happy looking at the tree outside than any art. I mean the tree is a work of art and you can find more things in that tree than which you could find in any artwork and this is an important thing to understand.
These 10 questions originally came from a French series, “Bouillon des Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. They’re better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. Their addition to this questionnaire is to get to know a bit more about Barbara the person, instead of the artist, a bit more about Barbara outside your role.
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively?
My work, that I have been able to create something from nothing
What turns you off?
What is your favorite curse word?
I don’t actually have one to tell you the truth. I don’t say any one word more than the next.
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
I hate loud Music.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I don’t really know. It’s easier to say these things but everything is not so simple. I am happy with what I do, I don’t need to do anything more.
What profession would you not like to do?
I would hate to be a politician
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I don’t think you can perceive of anything. It’s not possible to simplify that concept to that point. The Pearly Gates and God are just figments of our imagination so I am not able to answer the question.