Roger Ballen


BALLEN was born in New York in 1950, and has lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for nearly thirty years. Working as a geologist, Ballen began to photograph the homes and white residents of rural South Africa before developing his more theatrical and expressive style in the late-1990s.

His books include Boyhood, Dorps, Platteland, Outland andShadow Chamber, which has just been published in paperback by Phaidon. His work is included in the collections of the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), and the Museum of Modern Art (New York).

In photography, since the basis of photography is “capturing reality”, people always want to know what the meaning of the wires is. In painting, you don’t ask that question. It’s there. It’s part of the composition. So in photography, one wants to place it in some objective format.
When one looks at the wire, one has to understand the dual mechanism that’s behind the wire. One is “What is that wire? What does it mean? What is the metaphor behind it?” That’s one question. The other part of the issue is the formal qualities of the wire. “What does the wire do in the photograph formally?” In many cases, the wire is used to almost stitch the photograph together, to bind one part of the photograph to the other. So you have these two qualities to the wire—one is the formal quality, and the other is based on the metaphor of the content.
I’m not necessarily avoiding your question, but I think that all my photographs, especially the later ones, have a complex level of meaning to them. A lot of the meaning is visual—it’s not necessarily derived from verbal conceptualizations. I’m not able to tell you whether the wires mean this or that. They mean all sorts of different things, and they mean different things to different people, and they have some meanings that are strictly visual. One has to define one’s own level of the picture’s significance. That’s really the only honest answer to that question.


This time in South African history was a real period of turmoil, so in a way, I captured something that perhaps had this historic element to it. The way these people were photographed, in my mind, was a metaphor for what a lot of people were feeling. They were feeling unsettled, alienated, and not able to cope in all sorts of ways. So on one hand, these people were relating to the particular set of circumstances that they must have felt at the time. But at the same time, I think the people, somehow or another, were a metaphor for various aspects of the human condition. So I think that the photographs which have become iconic in some ways are more related to the human condition than to the particular circumstances of the time.

Fotografie/ Roger Ballen 13

Head inside shirt, 2001/ Shadow Chamber

From the interview:
Artitst Website:

Video Phaidon for “Outland”:

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