I am at the Johannesburg Library. Today wasn’t a planned trip but rather an attempt to kill time waiting for an appointment that was running over. On my last visit to the library, I made a clear mental note to come back and see some more of the timeless works of Roger Ballen. So this time, I decided to start at the beginning of his relationship with South Africa in his œuvre that spans through forty years of his life. Up three flights of stairs and I am in the art section and as always I nestle my way around the shelves and make my way to the photography section.
Dorps (published in 1986) is Ballen’s first body of work focusing solely on South Africa. Produced when he was in his thirties, it features a slightly mature man in search of his own story- unlike the young New York boy in search of Boyhood in his 1979 publication of the same name. Dorps intersects through 1980s South Africa as Ballen tries to find himself amidst the backdrop of a shifting political landscape and the coming of democracy slowly approaching.
In Hope of ‘Freezing Time’
In the last paragraph of the foreword, Ballen gives an account of his approach to the work which gave a glimmer into the nostalgic feelings that lay buried in each image:
“I have tried to depict what I believe to be a disappearing South African aesthetic. With each year, the anonymity of the present further transforms the character of these places. In many ways, I feel as if I have recorded the elements of a dying culture. I photographed these towns in the hope of “freezing” time and arresting the utter extinction of the South African Dorp”
Dorps is a true depiction of a dying culture, and surely in a few years, its death will be evident. Some of these towns look empty, so much so that one wishes the images came with a caption on the time of day because black and white photography can at times leaves no justice to time. Roger continues to add in his foreword how these towns were seemingly vacant after 5 pm with the exception of a few cafes. Something of a rarity in today’s buzz filled rush hour traffic. With Dorps I connect with what Roger has tried to achieve. This set-up of a dorp is as he says, disappearing, and to my generation, merely a long distant dream and history.
The work featured in Dorps precedes me by at least five years or six and a lot of these “dorp” like areas have fizzled out. For me, a dorp doesn’t represent the one street town with a church at its center as depicted by Ballen but rather an intricate maze of city blocks and chain stores our mothers took us to every month end “ he rea dropong”.
Change is the Only Constant
The townsfolk in the images mirror the towns scarcity of liveliness, with neither of them looking happy. Of the images with couples, none of them seems to represent a marriage that is intact. There is no holding of hands or gentle loving smiles. Distance fills the spaces in between and one of the younger couples just stands rigidly next to each other arms akimbo as mere participants. Another couple of note is elderly and both man and woman reserve space between each other on a bench as if to show the drift in their marriage and the shifting landscape of apartheid system.
When you do see people on the streets it is usually black people in the form of a maid/ helper (how we have always been part of white South African culture!) Other images capture kids running amok in the streets and the helpers lost in chatter, possibly about yesterday’s events at the boss’ house. The Indian Tradesman is still as part of the Dorps as they have been since the 80s. Abo-My Friend –as they are better known– stock up on some household brands that we still know and trust to this day, brands such as Disprin, Eno, Colgate, , Best Blend (or BB or Mkhulu’s roll up tobacco to some), and Vicks Vapour rub; grandma’s secret remedy for a creeping sore chests and fevers.
Another of my favourite images is that of a gentleman dressed to the nines outside the Asian Bazaar. Hand in one pocket in what looks like Florsheim shoes and Brentwood pants, this is a style that has strongly influenced the dress sense of many in the generations following his. So iconic is his ensemble, he could easily be the gentleman photographed in Jodi Bieber’s Soweto. Looking dapper with an attitude to match, the man stands out because he seems nonchalant about the world around him. It is just him and the camera. He is the star of his personal fashion show and Roger is there only to document this. I wonder if this was a candid or posed shot. If it was posed, I wonder how the frames before or after it look like.
Where ever you look, South Africa owes its greatness to its history both good and bad. Our history continues to offer us points of entry and exit for conversations. Class, race and culture are all nestled in our diversity. What I loved most about this body of work is that in the midst of all the 1980s turmoil, Roger Ballen was still able to capture life in areas that seemed to be untouched by their surroundings or the shifting political landscape.
Dorps is available at the Joburg Library’s section 707 (aka the photography section). One can also purchase a copy directly from Amazon at Hardcover $38.27 and used from $48.30. To see more of Roger Ballen’s Dorps please visit his Website, Facebook or Instagram.
Feel free to drop a comment with your thoughts on some of your favourite images from the book or other Roger Ballen books that you have recently seen.