Roger Ballen: Outland

  November –
December 2002

Image by Roger Ballen from the exhibition Outland at Gallery of Photography Ireland, November 1 – December 1 2002.

Roger Ballen’s retrospective work Outland is the culmination of eighteen years of photography and explores the whole spectrum of his work over a period of almost twenty years, ranging from the uninhabited interiors of the small dorps (towns) in South Africa, to a selection of frontal portratits from the Platteland series and the disturbing, demonical, self-enclosed tableaux-vivant of recent years. Begun in 1981, Ballen’s photographs tell the story of the South Africans living on the fringe of society. the work recalls the canonical photo-documentaries of August Sanders, Walker Evans and Diane Arbus, yet remains unique in its psychological nuances. Against backdrops that attest to their social dislocation, Ballen’s subjects act out dark and at times discomfiting tableaux, positioned in the grey area between fact and fiction.

Ballen’s photographs document more than the social collapse and financial and cultural impoverishment of his subjects; rather they interrogate the nature of photo-documentary itself. In his narration with a camera, he no longer attempts to be objective or representational. Unlike most subjects of documentary who pose passively for the camera, Ballen’s subjects become actors in an existential drama they have in part created. In this way, Ballen asks us to consider whether their play-acting makes them doubly victim whereby they collude directly in their own ridicule, or whether they are empowered and active participants within the drama of their photographic representation. In the most recent pictures, they appear as condensed, radical still-lifes in which Ballen fuses bodies and objects together, creating a heightened sense of alienation and the grotesque.

About the artist: Born in New York City in 1950, Roger Ballen was first introduced to photography at thirteen when his mother started working for Magnum. After receiving his PhD iin Geology in Berkeley in 1972, Ballen fell in love with the natural beauty of South Africa and finally settled there in 1982. Ballen’s training as a professional geologist can be seen in the way he scales back the visible surfaces to tell tales of the irregularities and consistencies.

Ballen has previously published five books of his photographs: Boyhood (1979), Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (1986), Platteland:Images from Rural South Africa (1994), Cette Affrique La by Photo Poche (1997) and Outland (2001), a volume of Ballen’s collected work, published by Phaidon Press.