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Don’t miss Roger Ballen’s dark, unsettling work

We caught up with the renowned photographer ahead of his exhibition

By Simran Bhalla  October 28th, 2015

Roger Ballen’s vivid, high-contrast portraits of marginalised white South Africans are often characterised as dark and disturbing. The theatrical edge to his photographs is heightened by the illustrated props and installations he includes. Ballen tells us, “I never wanted to be a professional photographer,” despite becoming interested in the form at a young age – his mother worked at Magnum when he was growing up. He has a PhD in geology, and says that it was a “gradual, gradual transition” to going full-time – only after his photos became very well known.

His subjects, frequently from the dorps and rural areas of South Africa, have striking faces. He knows many of them well now, but intimacy isn’t a prerequisite for revealing photographs: “In some situations, I got best photos in the first five minutes of meeting someone. It doesn’t matter how you know your subjects or what you say to them.” Ballen says that what’s represented in the photographs is more about an aesthetic reality, his own visual language.

One of his “viral” works is the music video for ‘I Fink U Freeky’, a song by cult rap-rave group Die Antwoord. The musicians approached him to direct the video because they loved his work. “They integrated various parts of my aesthetic into their music,” he says. Ballen never uses actors: the cast of the video were all unknown individuals, “people who could fit into my photography.”

Ballen is American, and first came to South Africa on a five-year round-the-world trip he took when he was young. “I never had any goals about settling – one thing led to the next, and my roots there got deeper and deeper.” He has lived in Johannesburg since the 1980s. This is his second trip to India (the first was on that world tour), but he won’t be producing a local edition of his work: “I never take pictures when I travel.”  

Roger Ballen: Works 1995-2015 will be on view at Photoink from October 29 to January 9.

Photographs: Courtesy Roger Ballen / Photoink