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  • Writer's pictureKatharina Poggendorf Kakar

The amazing Roger Ballen

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

A few years ago, in 2015, I met the South African photographer and artist Roger Ballen at a talk during one of his solo shows in India. I was immediately intrigued by the intensity and power of his works and the way he talked about it. As quoted from Shadow Chamber, “His photographs are striking, ambiguous images of people, animals and objects posed in mysterious, cell-like rooms that occupy the grey area between fact and fiction, blurring the boundaries between documentary photography and art forms such as painting, theatre and sculpture.” Elsewhere, about one of my favourite publications of his, it is written, “Roger Ballen is one of the most original image makers of the twenty-first century. Asylum of the Birds showcases his iconic photographs, which were all taken entirely within the confines of a house in a Johannesburg suburb, the location of which remains a tightly guarded secret. The inhabitants of the house, both people and animals, and most notably the ever-present birds, are the cast who perform within a sculptural and decorated theatrical interior that the author creates and orchestrates.”

Who is this man, creating installations of internal landscapes that many find scary and appalling? Darkness, uncertainty, curiosity, animal instinct, strangeness, sexual weirdness, are all elements I find repeatedly in Ballen’s creations. I feel honesty and authenticity in his pictures, no fear to confront himself and his audience with the inner shadows of the self.

In the beginning of his career as an artist, Roger Ballen photographed streets of his chosen home country and soon found himself knocking on people’s doors and entering a world which led to his first important book and project, Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa, which was published in 1994. Why did Platteland stand out and caused such a deep controversy at its time? In that project, which in a way was Ballen’s breaktrough as an artist, he portrayed mainly poor white people, living on the margins of society in remote rural towns. As one can imagine, in a country that just survived the apartheid system (abolished in 1991), his approach of documenting the forgotten and poor White, did not gain him much sympathy. Already here, Ballen broke a lot of taboos and that was met with hesitance by the public. I am stressing the breaking of taboos, because Ballen never keeps boundaries intact. Perhaps this is the key issue in all his works: breaking boundaries, penetrating uncomfortable truths.

In the projects that followed Platteland, he continued to photograph poor workers, witchdoctors, criminals, isolated individuals and animals. His projects always stretch over several years and he builds a rapport with the people during his frequent, often daily visits.

Says the artist about himself: “My purpose in taking photographs over the past forty years has ultimately been about defining myself. It has been fundamentally a psychological and existential journey. I often question whether the face I see in the mirror is mine, and where my thoughts come from. ‘Reality’ is a word that has no meaning to me; it is unfathomable. I would rather express the enigma behind this word than ponder its fundamental nature.” (Roger Ballen,

Watch, for example Roger Ballen et Hans Lemmen - "Unleashed",

A beautiful example of Roger Ballens work and thought process.

copyright Roger Ballen,

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