Roger Ballen artwork | Part 1

  1. Review of the book Ballenesque: a retrospective

For knowing or enjoying watching the artwork of Roger Ballen nothing so good as his own book Ballenesque: a retrospective [1], the artist himself provides us the keys, at first hand and chronologically, so we can understand his work. The introduction of Robert J.C. Young is also interesting, who tell us some useful elements of his images so we can keep track of the evolution of his artwork that we are going to see right now.

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Early works - Leap, Israel, 1974
Early works – Leap, Israel, 1974

Ballenesco (Ballenesque) is the name given by Roger Ballen to his work and refers to a personal style that, due to its peculiar characteristics, makes it unique and easily identifiable. Among these characteristics we find, in the first place, the portraits, which, in many of their series, are of marginalized people who live in remote and separate areas of society. In these images, the use of frontal photography becomes restless until it creates a disaffection for the photographed subject, even though it is presented in an almost dramatic vital situation that should lead us to compassion. The second distinctive feature of Ballen’s photography is the accumulation of elements without a clear relationship between them. The third aspect would be, in the interior photographs, more and more numerous, the presence of the wall as background of the composition, a wall without windows that acquires prominence through chipped, marks, pictures and, finally, by the presence of many cables and drawings. And the fourth characteristic would be the evolution of the representation from the real towards an unreal and staged representation but that has evolved from a peaceful world to another really disturbing, sordid and dark.

Boyhood, Hoop
Boyhood, Hoop

– The book divides the work of the author into periods and photographic series. The first period includes what he calls Early Works (first jobs) and the Boyhood series (childhood). These are defined as works of documentary photography. He began taking photographs in 1969, in his city, then on a trip to Mexico and then in 1973, on a trip through several countries (including South Africa) that would last five years. In those photographs he began to collect images of people in dramatic situations and children. With the images of these, he made the Boyhood series.

Dorps - Sideview of Hotel, Middelburg, 1983
Dorps – Sideview of Hotel, Middelburg, 1983

– The second period is made up of the Dorps, Platterland and Outland series. Dorps – whose full title is: Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (Dorps, small towns of South Africa) – is the name by which those populations are known. With this series he wanted to reflect and preserve the aesthetics of those areas that already seemed an aesthetic of the past about to disappear and portray the simple people who inhabit them.

Platteland – Dresie and Casie, Twins, 1993

The Platteland series: Images from Rural South Africa (platteland: images of rural South Africa), refers to the photographs taken in the South African countryside. Platteland means flat lands. This series was controversial since it showed images of disadvantaged targets, poor whites, which was contrary to the image that one wanted to give of a South Africa in which there would be some advantages for the privileged target over the disadvantaged black, but this series showed that the injustice reached the same white men and was a reality that did not want to be recognized. In these images there reigns the physical disorder of the rooms and the mental disorder of the people photographed.

Outland – Cat Catcher, 1998

The last series of that period was Outland (terrallende, or distant lands) and begins with an aesthetic similar to the last phase of Platteland, as it continued to portray whites at risk of exclusion from South African society, since, in the series of their work, there are not really watertight compartments but a smooth evolution, but with the characteristics of the Ballenesco much more defined. In 1997 the author himself observes a change when he sees that his photographs are no longer portraits of people, but rather that subjects use them as actors to stage the universal of existence, so he continues to eliminate references to specific places. Ballen calls this phase the period of the cable, since cables are the protagonists of many of his works, such as lines or drawings, assisting or supplying wall stains. And he tells us that, in that series, he talks about the absurdity of life, since there is no ultimate purpose for our existence.

While working in Outland, he began to work on the series, The Shadow Chamber, and came into contact with the Beanhead family that would condition his work since then, when, entering his house, he saw walls full of drawings that supposed the beginning of the inclusion of drawings in his photographs, which would take him, over time, to an unpredictable, complex and varied artistic evolution.

Shadow chamber - Puppies in fishtanks
Shadow chamber – Puppies in fishtanks

– His third period begins with the series The Shadow Chamber (The camera of the shades). In which there were two parts; in the first, until 2003, he calls it a “transitionalportrait, and in it, he mixes image and drawing, but he would stop presenting people’s faces on a regular basis, instead presenting parts of the body. In these works, we find human beings, animals, objects, drawings, mixing photography with painting, sculpture and theater, presenting situations, people and strange and disturbing rooms. That disappearance of the human figure takes him to the second part of the series, in which the characteristics of the two following series appear that will be those of this period, the disappearance of people and the preeminence of drawing.

Boarding House – Predators, 2007
Boarding House – Predators, 2007

The period continues with the series Boarding house, carried out in the abandoned facilities of an old gold farm, and is followed by the series Asylum of the Birds, with a similar aesthetic in abandoned spaces. and careless, full of useless objects and anguished drawings, but in which the birds predominate. The contrast between the appearance of the birds and the appearance of the place is a metaphor for the difference between nature and civilization. The evolution of his work in this period is the evolution from exterior to interior, from the appearance of the world to the mind of individuals, a work that would end up being a study of psychology.

The Theatre of Apparitions, Stare, 2008

– In a fourth period, he presents The Theater of Apparitions, a video work done with cartoons, which seems to be a study of the unconscious thoughts of Ballen himself who appears as the sleeper who dreams of the events that they are narrated in the different stories that the video contains.

Fotograma del vídeo Outland
Frame of Outland video

– Along with the photograph, he has made some videos, but it is customary to make them from the collaboration with the musical group Die Antwoord. In them, he treats the same subjects as in his photographic series, they even have the same titles, but the violence and aggression are more evident than in the still photographs. And, it resorts, in addition to the realization of facilities, in which the spectator contemplates and perceives the space, in addition, of the color, that he begins to use in his photographic works.

Fotograma del video The house of the Ballenesque
Frame of The house of the Ballenesque video

II. Critique: Introduction


An Irish legend tells [2] that, in a village, they captured the devil and put him on trial for his crimes. Without going into describing the tricks with which his lawyer got him to confess his crimes or the consideration of the judge – who left him free not to accuse humanity of being an accomplice – we must take another step, or two, in the analysis at the end of the story – according to which the villagers killed the lawyer – not to mention the obvious – that these people did not understand what the lawyer had done – and to offer some conclusion of the narration with universal value: that no one understands never nothing; that people act by emotions and think themselves loaded with reasons; and what can be more annoying and less acceptable, that the evil of good people has been exposed.

Asylum of the Birds - Look Alike
Asylum of the Birds – Look Alike


It may be thought that the worst way to start an analysis of the work of an artist is to make a harsh criticism of the world in which you live. Well, let’s make another one, since, without defending the truth and fighting against error -not to say falsehood or its worst enemy, simplicity-, it is useless to make statements that would be immediately questioned by good citizens who accept the impositions social as truths without considering how such supposed truths are opposed to evidence and reality.

There is no unique relationship between causes and effects in human behavior and, therefore, it cannot be concluded that every expression of a man is a projection of the subconscious. Science and law have annulled the individual, because, thanks to them, everyone feels capable to value and judge the acts of others-both morally and psychologically-and to condemn others. But the subject is the only one who knows, either with an official title or without it.

Roger Ballen, Die Antwoord
Roger Ballen, Die Antwoord


The work of Roger Ballen has been misunderstood by those – few, very few – who, to put it mildly, scare them. Surely, they consider beautiful a painting of a beautiful naked woman, without considering if the painting is beautiful herself. In such a case, they would understand that beauty could exist in a work that represents something ugly or macabre and they would understand what art is.

The approach to the work of this author must be made from the knowledge of its origin, that is, of the same works and, in this case, of the guidelines provided by the artist himself on the reasons for their creation, without which , could easily fall into personal interpretation instead of performing an objective analysis.

Shadow chamber - Ratman
Shadow chamber – Ratman


Ballen studied geology at Golden’s mining school and practiced that profession for some years. He also studied psychology, an activity that never worked, fortunately, both for him, because he did not become an augur, and for society, which benefited from his art. Because of his relationship with cameras and photographers since childhood, he intuitively acquired, like children’s native languages, a knowledge of artistic techniques and the composition of the image that he could instinctively handle, as demonstrated by his first jobs.

He also attended film, painting and theater courses that would be useful in the development of his art.

Fotograma del video Theatre of Apparitions
Frame of Theatre of Apparitions video

On the other hand, the knowledge that gave him the official titles would help him to deepen the knowledge of the human soul – if that is really possible – a subject for which he already had a great disposition, without which, no science it would be useful.

Frame of The house of Ballenesque video

Ballen has expressed his distrust of the social and cultural values ​​of the Western world, an attitude that I do not believe there has ever been a human being that has not maintained at some point in his life. Now, if Ballen, unlike other mortals, has been able to maintain his ideas while his social respect, has been due to his fortunate social position, a position that took the opportunity to illustrate through various studies that served to achieve a professional respect within that social world.

Early woks – Dead Cat, 1970

III. Critique: Periods of his photographic work

The first works of this author are works classified as documentary photography. Ballen was making photographs in New York and his travels, one to Mexico and another, which lasted five years, across different continents.

Boyhood – Cover-up, Indonesia, 1976

His first published work was boyhood, 1979, with a selection of images of that time in which children appeared. He himself considers that this work was a search for his lost youth, but it is more likely that he was simply talking about what he knew best, about the young people. With these images, he managed to publish a book that was well received.

In this book we already observe the presence of certain characteristic elements of his later work, the work in series, the publication of his series in books, the use of black and white and, for his first works, the capture of images in open spaces, but, especially, for an unprecedented interest in reflecting the unofficial society and showing the marginal world.

What is relevant from these first works is, as we say, the lack of references to the society in which he lives, since it is necessary to reflect, in this documentary work, what the official world that has created the culture of our time is like.

The images of that first period of his work include, in addition to the life of the children, dramatic situations and others of the normal life of normal people, but they are anecdotal, curious or special situations, therefore, the documentation that realizes is not that of ordinary life. We could say that these works reflect the exceptional of the official world and what has not yet reached the rank of official in society.

The distance from the world in which he lives is manifested by the lack of references to his existence; In his work, there is no direct criticism, so he did not have to endure social criticism. In search of the nature of the human soul, Ballen intuits that rigid social conditions rescind the freedom of the individual, so the truth that pursues could only find in beings not subject to social conventions, and these will be found in the world not official, in the marginal world.

Dops – Old Man, Ottoshoop, 1983


The first series of his second serious artistic period would be Dorps: The Small Towns of South Africa, 85, selecting images of a traditional South Africa with which the progress is finishing, and he intends to document so that he does not forget.

Here he resorts to the use of the square format, and his interest in the marginal world becomes clear. The Dorps were degrading themselves, and Ballen photographs them, at least, for the knowledge of posterity. The series collects images of the houses, made with a little monumental style, as the author says, although, with the western aesthetics of our streets, it would turn out to be the opposite, and it also collects images of simple people.

The horizontal format has narrative intentions, which do not interest Ballen, and the vertical format has a transcendent meaning that leads us to ideas but not to the reasons. The square format has a technical, rational sense. Ballen does not deal with the phenomenon, that is, with events, nor with the character of each character he portrays, but tries to show, through the individual, the universal. For the same reason, he avoids color, since color corresponds to the phenomenon, which interests him only in order to know its causes, and he resorts to frontal photography, that is, avoids any personal interpretation.

Dorps – Wall above bed, Dordrecht, 1984

In this same stage, he begins to enter the houses of the people he photographs. The meaning of this tactic is to enter the interior of the subject that portrays, while, in his previous period, he remained distant from people by doing a documentary work only of the life and customs of citizens. The entrance into the rooms of the houses and, more specifically, into their bedrooms (in which one falls asleep and one dreams) is, metaphorically, the entrance into the human psyche to realize that study of the man who, as we have said, could only perform in a world not completely structured in which the individual had, as in Greek dramas, some personal autonomy to carry out their actions according to their ideas and motives. But, immediately, it will use, to show the strange and marginal, the strange and marginalized beings who, out of necessity or disinhibition, will act with greater freedom and allow him to raise the difference between madness and normality, something that distinguishes better than what lets glimpse, question that will continue developing in the following series, Platteland, and in the later ones.

The wall, as the background of the composition, without windows and with strange elements that characterize this series, would be the wall that would prevent the temptation to analyze the phenomenon, the physical world, which can not be seen because there are no openings to look at it. The elements of the wall would be a sample of the imprint of the subject’s mind photographed.

Platteland – Man Shaving on Verandah, 1986


The Platteland series, 1994, caused him some personal problems by exposing the reality of the existence of the white man in South Africa. The fact of suffering the attacks of the community reveals the truth of the social world, the one that Ballen says he flees and in which you must choose between staying true to your principles, facing the established, or respecting the decisions of the powerful, denying yourself. Ballen, now, faces society and suffers the consequences, but he is saved from having to choose between his independence and his social status, and he is not aware of it. Ballen continued to maintain a status in the social world thanks to his prestige and professional relationships, therefore, he was able to stop the attacks of the opposing clans and continue, with his work, in the social world and, with his ideas, in the artistic world.

Platteland  – Sgt. F. de Bruin, Dep of Prisons Employees, OFS, 1992

For these reasons, Ballen can speak of the conscience of oneself without suffering the attacks suffered by others for defending the same idea. Society does not defend ideas, is not qualified for it and does not have the honesty to do it, what is defended, in each of the clans in which society is divided, is to its members, and does so defending what they say, whatever it is, because, in society, the truth lacks value, what has value is the strength of the clan that gives it power to impose its criteria and will in that world.

Yes, in the social world, perfectly structured through the various institutions with power to impose their criteria in the various areas of their respective competences and a gregarious mentality over those institutions that imposes with greater rigor, if possible, the rules of conduct of its members, it is not possible to notice the human nature through the behavior of its members, being conditioned by the established powers, we must say that the behavior of the marginalized is also conditioned by the circumstances and, in the case from a study, human behavior resembles the quantum, in which the presence of the observer interferes with the result.

Outland – Brian with pet pig, 1998
Outland – Brian with pet pig, 1998


Of the series Outland, 2000, the artist says who looked for a place in which the human condition is revealed in its true sense, that is to say, it wanted to delve more into the mind of man. But he says that the people who photographed seemed inert because they were unable to change their destiny in a material way.

In the end, the existence of the marginal world, which interests Ballen, is a consequence of that perfect organization of the official world; worlds that are intimately related because they are the two sides of a coin. In the same way that the most advanced countries send their waste to the most backward countries and do not allow for further development, the social world sends people who cannot integrate marginal worlds into their worlds, which the process of modernization of some areas generate in others. It is the civilized world that governs the destinies of the inhabitants of the rest of the world, except that of the indigenous peoples when they are not annihilated.

Being the concepts of good and bad class concepts, as Nietzsche taught us, the advanced society considers that its members are powerful, that is, according to the evolution of language, good, and that the inhabitants of the marginal world are commoners, that is, bad. In this way, civilized society thinks that it has a right to dominate and sanction the bad by a poorly understood complex of moral superiority: Only from this “Pathos” of distance did they extract the right to create values, to coin names for values.

Outland – Tommy, Samson and a Mask, 2000

The difference established by the dominant society among men is the result of the distance established between the groups, that is, the contempt for the stranger and the feeling of one’s own moral superiority. The need to despise others is the result of the misery and pettiness of small people who only despising another can feel superior.

The obligation to respect authority and to trust others, which are modern impositions, are too similar to the demand that the Indo-European peoples made to their members to respect the agreements, which means forgetting the conscience of oneself – since it is about antagonistic concepts that cannot coexist-, so we can affirm that four thousand years of supposed evolution have not made human relations improve and, always, the powerful will subdue the weak and will call, to its impositions, truths.

Outland, Show off
Outland, Show off


In the Outland series of 2000, the artist is interested in analyzing the idea of ​​chaos and order. The cable, as in the photograph, is line and the line is the element of the figure, therefore, origin or symbol of order, when it has a form, and, with that sense, it presents it a few times. In the tangled form in which they appear in other images, on the contrary, it refers to the chaos in the field in which he studies it, in the mental one.

Madness and sanity are cultural concepts, in the same way that good and evil are fundamental concepts. To make understandable that values ​​are interested interpretations established by power groups, let us remember, for example, that, in the West, the rapist is punished and that, in the East, the raped woman is murdered. In general, who determines that the other is mean is the real mean, and the other is his victim. This is proven without doubt in the harassment, in which the harasser believes he has the right to do what he does.

The powerful petty ones like to disqualify their opponents with logical or psychological arguments -which, in fact, do not have criminal responsibilities-, so we understand that Socrates and Freud are the biggest culprits in facilitating the widespread social criticism because, thanks to them, everyone has at their disposal some opportune logical or psychological argument against their neighbor and, seeing the power that the disqualification gives the author, all petty sees the way to obtain power and fame in that way, and it would only be missing that, In addition, his misery will bring him fortune.

Fotograma del vídeo The theatre of the mind
Frame of The theatre of the mind video

Differentiating the chaos of order, or the madness of mental health, leads our artist to present the question of the absurd. But you must be careful when using this term. Ballen attended theater classes and had knowledge of the theater of the absurd. This artistic absurdity is a game with reason, a game in which the laws of logic are not respected, but in which the viewer is aware of this alteration. Instead, the philosophical absurdity of existence speaks of the unforeseen events of the world, speaks of chance and unpredictability of human behavior, which, in a moment, can disrupt our plans and lead us, in the most unexpected way, to death, preventing us from fulfilling our purposes. The existential absurdity is not the lack of meaning of our life, that is a current interpretation, since the ancients did not consider the reason of the world, but the reason of the things of the world, because they considered existence justified as a whim of the gods.

Shadow chamber - Funeral rites
Shadow chamber – Funeral rites


The third period of his work is his period of maturity and begins with the series Shadow chamber, in 2004, in which faces, and people begin to lose importance in relation to drawings, marks on walls, animals, objects of all kinds, sculptures and cables, which become the protagonists of the images. This change is due to the evolution of its tendency to study the interior of the human being and not the exterior.

Shadow Chamber – Roar, 2002
Shadow Chamber – Roar, 2002

Marginalized people portrayed inside their homes, unrelated to the physical world, remain people, that is, they possess an individuality in which a feature of the material manifestation of the particular can still be noticed. When resorting to the image created by simple drawings, the individuality disappears, although the particularity can be shown, for example, in a caricature of the human being, to show a specific feature; or universality, without offending the character who would be reduced to insignificance, lacking personal traits, which does not happen with a drawing whose mission, in this case, is to reflect the common man and not the particular character of an individual.

Shadow Chamber, Room of the Ninja Turtles, 2003
Shadow Chamber, Room of the Ninja Turtles, 2003

Consequently, as the author says, the background became the subject. The background had already been the obstacle for the portrayed characters could enter the physical world, understanding the people portrayed as characters with individual characters and, the background, as the generic of the species, in which they have been able to show personal traits.

The bottom is, then, the transcendental. Ballen goes from looking for reasons of behavior to seek the essence of the human being that gives rise to the manifestations for which, until now, sought explanation.

One consequence of this change of objective is the change in formats, the use of different artistic techniques and the use of color. The human soul is too complex to analyze only rationally, and each art is a way of approaching the truth and the use of several serves to show us the different aspects of the truth that each art offers to intuition, not to reason.

Fotograma del vídeo The theatre of apparitions
Frame of The theatre of apparitions video


In the fourth period, we find The Theater of the Apparitions, 2016, an animation video with appearances by the artist. In it, all human figures disappear, except for Ballen, who dreams. The video is just drawing. In the previous period, we see, in the treatment of the image, that it tends to be reduced to gray, causing the background and the figure to merge. In this short film, the background and the figure are no longer confused, but differ because the representation that is made is not that of a concrete man, whose qualities do not interest to know, but that of the eternal archetypes with precise connotations. What the theater of the apparitions says is that Ballen knows the truth intuitively, in the same way that the surrealists came to her, through the dream.

Part 2, next week…

1.- First published in the United Kingdom in 2017, by Thames & Hudson Ltd, 181A High Holborn, London WC1V 7QX, Ballenesque: Roger Ballen – A Retrospective. © 2017 Roger Ballen, ISBN 978-0-500-51969-1.
2.- History taook from the introduction of Taylor Caldwell book (Janet Miriam Holland Taylor Caldwell), The Devil’s Advocate.
Imágenes con derechos reservados, prohibida su reproducción.
Imagen de portada: Fotograma del videoclip I Fink U Freeky by Die Antwoord



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