Roger Ballen (born in New York City, New York, United States, 1950) is an American photographer living in Johannesburg, South Africa, and working in its surrounds since the 1970s. His body of work, developed over a period of four decades, began in the documentary field but his approach has widened to allow for a fictionalised visual dialogue between individuals, their architectural space, found objects and domesticated animals. His approach has been hailed as among the most unusual and exciting developments in contemporary photography.
While Ballen’s work is often described as “dark”, he describes his photography as essentially psychological, and speaks of the images referring to humanity’s “shadow side”. He say: “Shadow is better than dark, because dark for a lot of people connotates evil, and I always say it’s just the opposite. […] The pictures shouldn’t be seen as dark, and I’m not quite clear what is ‘dark’, anyway.”
Critics have written about Ballen’s shift from depictions of the everyday to the creation of tableaux vivants noting that the dramatic arrangement has defied conventions of documentary photography.
In his preface to the second edition of Outland, art historian and curator Peter Weiermair has noted that Ballen’s move from the objective and representational to collaboration with his subjects has meant that he has forsaken the critical role as chronicler of events in favour of allowing his figures to become “protagonists in an existential drama”. In earlier works these were individuals experiencing the dissolution of one order in South Africa in place of another; in the process they retreated to hidden territories explored by Ballen.
Weiermair notes that the game of showing and seeing, involving model and photographer, is rendered irrelevant, while Didi Bozzini writes that the relation between Ballen and his subjects is disruptive of the laziness of our everyday gaze.
According to Weiermair, it is the archetypal character of the images that “touches our subconscious”, yet it is also through the conventions of black and white photography, outsider art and theatre of the absurd that we comprehend the interiority of Ballen’s landscapes. His practice has however been extended to include video and conceptual installations, allowing the photographic medium to be used to push the camera even further from its traditional role of “recording or capturing the real” while retaining its use as provocateur for an examination of all that is human, to paraphrase critic Robert J. C. Young.