Show off, 2000
Child in bird coop, 1998
Half blinded, 1996
Roger Ballen’s monograph Outland was first released in 2001, to startling effect. His portraits were haunting images of people seemingly possessed by something so otherworldly it stopped one in their tracks. His subjects were white folk living on the outskirts of South Africa in a state of poverty so raw, it drew pause. To stare or not to stare? To rush past, in horror, or to slowly take it all in? It was all very provocative, and overwhelming.
The photographs, taken in and around Johannesburg in the 1990s, came to stand for more than a portrait of rural poverty, they became a comment on South Africa itself. Nelson Mandela had recently been elected, and apartheid had finally been abolished after half a century. The subject still loomed large in the media, when Outland was released. And so the photographs, and the book as a whole, came to stand for something larger than the people themselves. They became the screen upon which projections were aimed, and fears were voiced.
Who were these white men who had taken such an epic fall that they became nightmarish figures of a kind of darkness so profound it left one speechless and the only thing left was the relentless feeling of the grotestque creeping down your neck?
Ballen, who was an American by birth, and a geologist by trade, living in South Africa since the early 1980s, had taken to bringing his camera to document the people living in the countryside. After producing two monographs, Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa and Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa, everything changed.
Ballen remembers filling out customs forms in 1997. He was at the airport, and asked to write his profession. “I put ‘photographer/artist’ for the first time in my career. Before then it had been ‘businessman.’” It was in the process of taking this series of photographs that Ballen first saw himself—as an artist, first an foremost.
Perhaps somewhere in the process of stepping in and out of the dorps, with nothing but photographs to show, to reflect, to consider, that a question emerged. It was the first time question that Ballen remembers questioning himself in his work. That question was, “Does chaos pervade, or does order pervade?”
“Ultimately, my conclusion was: chaos pervades,” Ballen says with a laugh. He laughs comfortably, and frequently, at the absurdity of it all, of the absolute impossibility of the brain to reveal itself. He observes, “I’m trying to create order, and meaning in front of the camera to establish identity, but ultimately the photographs reflect disorder through the order of Roger Ballen.”
The tension between order and chaos, sanity and insanity, beauty and horror pulls tight and taught in every photograph Ballen takes, and that urge to laugh is as compelling as the urge to grimace. The absurdity Ballen describes is like that of Samuel Beckett, it is the madness of the human condition, made flesh and blood in this little corner of South Africa.
Perhaps these photographs are so unnerving as white men never portray white men as such, as figures of pity and mercy, of incarnations of a kind of darkness that is as unspeakable as it is compelling. In a 2014 interview with The Click, Ballen said, ““My pictures are traveling visually. I don’t use words. I never think about them. It’s not a good picture if you can attach a word to it. That is my criterion. When I can’t come up with a word, when there is layered meaning, when I feel that I know I am getting somewhere and I feel it is something I cannot define, I am going into the right zone.”
It is into this zone that Ballen goes as he has just released Outland. 2nd Edition (Phaidon). The newly expanded edition of the book features over 40 previously unpublished photographs, which are sequenced into a book in a way that alters our experience of the first edition. No longer is this a purely documentary collection of work. Now, in the second edition, we see the development of Ballen as he transformed from documentary to fine art photography.
There is a blending of fictional elements, resulting in constructed realities. As Elisabeth Sussman writes in the book’s introduction, “Ballen is interested in nothing short of exposing the existential condition of these people as representative of amore universal proximity to chaos, the madness at the edge of reality. Here is there to record, to instigate, and to construct enigmatic scenarios that are inherent in Outland….
“Whilst shooting Ballen even found that his dispossessed subjects would speak to him in much the same way as characters in a Beckett lay, displaying a similar sense of powerless inertia and circularity. A typical conversation between the photographer and one of his subjects being:
“’What are you doing?
How do you feel?
I don’t know.
It is this sense of absurdity, this vast gasp of a laugh, that Ballen understands. He observes, “I like humor in pictures. At the same time, there is something tragic in them that I recognized.” It is this balance that Ballen strikes, like a tightrope walker, tension taught yet utterly at ease. The second edition of Outland shows his transition as a photographer from documenting the world as it appears to recreating the world into visual metaphors, poems, and lyrical images. It is into this world that Ballen first stepped when he introduced the line, the drawing, the fictive element that is the hand of the artists reminding us of his presence. We see the line everywhere, in wires and cord, but it makes its first impression upon walls in the photograph, Portrait of a sleeping girl, taken in 2000. The effect is dreamy, yet curious, like the portal into unconsciousness when slumber first overcomes.
Ballen notes, “This is when I first started to interact with my subjects in some way. It was the first step out; each step started to reveal what was meaningful to me at the time, and I built on the photograph layer by later. At times, it was a bit of an earthquake and the picture jumped to another level, on a little higher plateau than before.” And it is with each new level, that our assumptions explode and what remains are questions without answers…answers we can never know for it is not the answer that matters so much as the wonder and intensity that we behold.
Men in field, 1997
Doll taped to wall, 2000