For more than five years, Roger Ballen has been photographing the eerie and sometimes-mystic relationship between birds and people. The results are a growing affection for birds and his latest (twelfth) book, Asylum, which captures his ongoing obsession with haunting, surreal, black-and-white worlds.
Deathbed, 2010. Archival Pigment Print. 90 × 90 cm.
Photo by Roger Ballen. Courtesy of the artist
THE BELIEVER: Tell me about Deathbed.
ROGER BALLEN: Since 2008, I have been photographing in a house in Johannesburg. It is physically similar to most of the places I have been working in for the last thirty years: claustrophobic, sparse, and dark. It’s a place of refuge for people who come from other parts of Africa or who are from broken homes, have no money, no job, or are escaping domestic violence. There are a lot of animals in this place.
This photograph began with my noticing the back of a bed that had drawings on it, and a blanket on the floor. I put the blanket next to the bed. There was a broken skull lying around, so I put it there, too. It’s very hard to make a good still life. One has to create deeper meanings. Birds were flying around the room so I grabbed one and stuck it on the skull but there still wasn’t the right balance. There were people milling around, kids and some other residents of the building, helping me, catching birds and so on. I had an epiphany that the image needed a hand, so a boy crawled under the bed and put his hand through a hole in the blanket. All of a sudden the scene made some sense. Birds rarely stay still, so it took a long time to create a strong relationship between the skull, the bird, and the hand. In two or three rolls of film, there was probably only one good picture.
There are thousands of little pieces that each image consists of. I start with nothing and work with live things and dead things, working very, very hard. I don’t have any idea what attracts me to this place, these people, and these animals. I work with my instincts.
In my photography, I explore only one thing: my own interior. I am obsessed with exploring the other side of my psyche that I want to open up. Through photographing, I find parts of my interior that I had not discovered before. It’s like dropping a fishing line into a dark ocean—what are you going to bring to the surface? Something that looks like a squid? Something that looks like a fish? Some kind of vegetation? It’s very mysterious.
BLVR: Tell me about the bird in this photo.
RB: Birds have their own particular metaphors. Maybe the bird represents life emerging from the head of a dead person, but why is the live hand there? How do they tie up? I don’t ask myself these questions as I don’t have the answers. As soon as you put a human face in a picture, it dominates the picture, so I’ve been using more animals than humans. Animals are not easy to categorize. They work in another realm. A dog has a nose five thousand times stronger than mine, giving him information that I can’t even begin to fathom. Animals are implicitly mysterious to humans. I work with them on their terms, and I spend long periods of time observing them. In the case of birds, I have some flying around my studio now, and I watch them fly and sit and sing. That’s their terms.
BLVR: How has being a New Yorker living in South Africa influenced your work?
RB: In 1974, I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town. I was a hippie. I was restless. There seemed to be very little meaning in Western society. I traveled from Istanbul to New Guinea. Afterward, I got my PhD in mineral economics from the Colorado School of Mines and moved back to South Africa in 1982. I grew up with a mother who worked at Magnum. She had one of the first photographic galleries in New York. Henri Cartier-Bresson was around. From his work I learned about “the decisive moment.” From Elliott Erwitt I learned about comedy. Paul Strand’s work taught me about pure composition and Kertész’s about surrealism. From 1982 until 2000, I was making this work in a total vacuum. South Africa is not an art-oriented place. There are few art collectors. I was alone, driven by my own needs and guts, which forced my creativity to come from the inside and from actually taking pictures. I was not looking at other art or copying. There were almost no bookstores or art galleries to walk past and influence me. South Africa has played a very large role in my development. I’ve been intensely involved and have been impacted by all the change—apartheid and the death of apartheid, the globalization of the South African economy, being in a place where extremes of underdeveloped and developed live side by side. I’ve been all over Africa and inside it. Africa has permeated my interior.
BLVR: Can you tell me more about your interior?
RB: Roger’s World seems to be synonymous with black and white. I only shoot black-and-white photos, never color. Color feels plastic to me. In paintings color is beautiful because in a painting it’s about the imagination, not about realism. I don’t like color in a photograph, because color photography pretends to be objectifying the world. I think our society is too bent on looking at the things that come to them in a plastic bottle, and not bent enough on looking into themselves. It’s very gratifying that my job is to create art for other people to view, and to create images from the inside that can change people’s perceptions—because they contain something intriguing, unfathomable, yet somehow familiar. That’s what good art should be doing. My photographs distill things for me. They define my essence. They reveal a piece of that puzzle. When I have found all the pieces, I will give up photography.