“It’s like being a juggler, you keep trying to put more balls in there.”
With a BA in psychology, a MS in geology and a PhD in Mineral Economics the South African based American photographer Roger Ballen was 13 when he got his first camera from his Magnum member mother. It was a gift that has kept on giving for Ballen as he pursued his mining career in parallel with his photography. As he delved into the ground he concurrently delved into his own psyche.
As he told the Guide to Unique Photograph’s Katherine Matthews “There was something implicit in what I was doing that fitted my personality, fitted the things that I was contending with psychologically. So, I could make the leap between looking at the earth surface and trying to project inward to the type of things that motivated me in my photography. Yeah, that’s probably why I really enjoyed that profession, even though the profession is a science, and a business, and it’s environmentally destructive as well. But there was something very linked to my personality and linked to the type of issues that were driving me to do photographs.”
Over a span of 50 odd years Ballen’s black and white documentary style has remained constant while his subject matter has progressed from his early landscape works to his confrontational psycho-drama explorations into the darker reaches of the human condition.
As he explained to American Photo’s Marc Erwin Babej “It’s always been part of my photography and psychology to reveal the more basic aspects of the human personality: violence, the will to power, sexual domination. And above all, that most fundamental of human instincts: survival.”
Although Ballen contends that his photographs aren’t dark so much as an illumination of the shadows “If you go into a supermarket, nobody’s upset with the 500 dead chickens there. Or go into the sushi restaurant where tuna are being destroyed in the interest of natural foods. It’s everywhere. So, that’s what I’m saying: when people see it as dark, they should see it as a revelation that is actually the reality that is pervading the planet and pervading most of their behavior,” he says.
His exploration of a subject can and often does take five or more years to complete, a mile stone that is marked by the publication of a book.
About which Ballen says “I work in a very disciplined way; I don’t rush anything. I’m not there to please anybody, I’m just taking these pictures for myself. I’m not there to please a publisher, or make a deadline. I’ve been doing this the same way for 50 years, this is the way I do things, this is why I’ve stuck to it, and this is why I’m committed to it, because it’s been my own journey.”
Ballen’s current exhibition The House Project is on show at Cape Town’s Galley Momo until the 28th of April.