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Archive: Issue No. 47, July 2001

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Roger Ballen interviewed by Dave Southwood (continued)

DS: How would you describe the subjects in your pictures?

RB: Finding the subject isn't the be all and end all, it's only the start of a process. The subject isn't the person, the whole picture is the subject ... If I had to map out where I am in terms of the whole photographic process, I would say when I have the subject I'm like 5 percent there.

DS: Then you have to start rearranging this tableau?

RB: What do I do? Make me the subject - I'm the subject, you are the photographer. Now your goal here is to make a photo you want to sell to a museum or somebody's collection.

DS: So what you are saying is that currency and collectability are the pre-eminent goals?

RB: I'm not saying that, no, no, no, no! You are not understanding what I am saying. You are the photographer, you want to create a great photograph, you have the camera, I'm your subject, this is the space - do it. Because what you see is as difficult as it gets. Create a photograph which will get into a museum. You have to get to that level of seeing.

I'm trying to explain that it's a very big jump from choosing me as the subject and going to the next transition.

DS: What do you mean the next transition?

RB: Creating an image of me that will mean something in this space, here.

DS: I'm not sure that I understand your question, but what I would do is ask you how you felt about your likeness and ask you to design the picture - which is clearly what you do in some cases because you speak to people and engage in an act. You said earlier that one of the reasons you could justify your pictures against the vitriol which often gets levelled against them is by saying that the people you photograph are happy with the alchemy which occurs when you are with them and you both are, in a sense, workshopping the portrait.

RB: In my opinion the subjects like the photographs, like the interaction ... so in my opinion it's a positive experience for both of us and that's the reality of the process. And you get the situation where someone who doesn't know me makes criticisms about my power relationships, that I have exploited the subjects in some way. But that, to me, is a very biased way of viewing the image, I don't think it's even a valid point because the person will never understand my relationship no matter what they do. They have to forget all the social baggage, because it's all social baggage, and they need to step into the image and stop levelling criticism at my relationship with the subject. They don't know anything about that, it's a moot point. It's like me telling you about your relationship with your mother, what do I know?

DS: Can you describe a situation where you choose a subject, approach their house and photograph them? Is it a long process? Do you spend a long time with them?

RB: Well, there are situations ... for example in Outland, where there is a portrait of a sleeping girl with a cat on top. I have known the whole family for 16 years and I have taken hundreds of pictures and never got a good one. And last year I got the picture. When I started meeting the family, that girl wasn't even born.

There are other situations, for example, the picture of Sergeant de Bruyn. I met him once and had tea with him and he went to his room and put on his sergeant suit. And he was very proud to have it on and wanted me to take a photograph of that. I never saw him again ...

DS: Of the published pictures, most contain men or children.

RB: I think you are right, it's mostly men. [There are a] lot of animals in the photographs, animals are quite predominant. I've never really been a woman-photographer.

DS: Do you find it difficult?

RB: I don't find it difficult. But I tend to be able to go deeper in men. I tend to be able to ... subconsciously penetrate their sensibilities easier than women, I guess. That's why I do it.

DS: How do you think your pictures would be different if they were in colour?

RB: They would be completely different.

DS: How do you think black and white is read in South Africa as opposed to countries where the black and white documentary tradition was not so rife? Do you think the way your pictures are read in SA compared with abroad has to do with a particular SA context?

RB: I find it very different. When Platteland came out in SA there seemed to be so much controversy about that book, and when Outland came out, which I believe is a stronger book than Platteland, a much more refined book, a more important book from an artwork point of view, from a photographic point of view, it hardly created a peep.

DS: Why do think they were received differently?

RB: The politics has changed, I think. People are less defensive about white issues and these people are brought to the forefront, they are on street corners. And I think the other thing is ... Outland consists of work which is much more art than documentary and I think a lot of people understood implicitly that the work is not social documentary, it's aesthetic photography, it's not making statements about SA.

People began to see that it's making aesthetic, philosophical, visual type of statements which transcend the SA situation and I think people really saw that and it scooted above issues which come out of SA. I had a show at the Goodman and there were many more positive than negative responses and people were impressed with the photography. People saw photography, not social documentary ... You know what the SA media is like, it's like the British press.

DS: You are moving away from the subject matter and through your directorial input your pictures are becoming more about you?

RB: Definitely. If you had to ask me what the pictures are about, they are self-portraits. If someone asks what they are about, they are only about me. About my problems, my anxieties, transitions and that's what keeps me going in photography. If I had 100 reasons for taking photographs, the last reason would be to try to define social issues in SA. I have no interest in that, I have no reason to deal with that, it doesn't interest me at all. What you see are metaphors.

DS: So there's a big discrepancy between how people read your pictures and your intention?

RB: There's such a big gap. In England there's the same thing. Do you know Martin Parr? He made a good comment: he said the media's agenda is not necessarily your agenda. He hit it right on the nose. Our goals are very different. They use it for their needs, to keep people buying newspapers. If you look at a newspaper in SA like the Weekly Mail, that newspaper's agenda is a political agenda. If you look at an Afrikaans paper, they all have socio-political agendas. Newspapers don't have aesthetic agendas. Rarely do you read a newspaper article with a philosophical or aesthetic agenda ...

DS: You mentioned that Samuel Beckett's plays can be likened to your work.

RB: Samuel Beckett's plays are minimal and he dealt with tragi-comedy which is in my work. My work is almost Shakespearean in the way - it has this comedy and this tragedy. I think the humour in my work is a very important part. I find it when I take the pics. People ask me, don't you get depressed? Taking pictures is a very humorous process, myself and the subjects have a lot of fun.

DS: Don't you think that in the literary comparisons you have just drawn, the uneasy relationship between the tragic and the comic is allowed to exist because the characters are fictions?

RB: You are right. It's the problem with photography ... One of the questions which comes out of my photography is, can it be fiction when you are dealing with people? In real circumstances ... why can't it be? If you saw a Lucien Freud painting people wouldn't be asking the same questions.

DS: In literary fiction it's the author and the reader whereas with your pictures there's a 3rd party which is implicated.

RB: Not necessarily, there a step of imagination that has to take place, you have to go from being the subject to transforming the whole picture into something which has its own life. The problem is we have been so brought up in the socio-documentary, Magnum, "Family of Man" institution that anything dealing with the real world first has to be tested for social meaning rather than aesthetic meaning. And that's why people are so overwhelmed with the content and don't see the formal issues.

DS: Work like yours is close to the anthropological photography canon ...

RB: What you are seeing here is visual archetypes. One of the reasons that the pictures are strong is because the people I placed in them have an archetypal sensibility.

DS: Could you reduce the procession of the pictures from inception to consumption into A) the contract between you and your sitters, and B) the pictures and a public, and do you think that as a photographer you have an obligation to explain this movement? In what terms do you describe the way in which the pictures will be consumed - do you tell the people that they will probably appear in galleries?

RB: I think I do. I show them my book and they are so happy. I bring them books and they frame their photographs. ... I cant tell you how happy they are when they see them.

DS: Are most of the people you photograph Afrikaans-speaking?

RB: I guess they are Afrikaans. The Afrikaans press has occasionally criticised me about making comments about the Afrikaans people. I have zero interest in trying to define Afrikaans people. A lot of the people are Afrikaans. I mean in Platteland and Dorps, it's just the people who live there. I like Afrikaans people a lot. I like their earthiness. I have a real affinity towards Afrikaans people because I feel they have something - especially the ones who live in the countryside ... live maybe on the poor side - they actually have some soul left in them, some tradition, some mythology.

DS: Do you speak Afrikaans?

RB: No, I can understand it. I'm not greatest linguist in the world, but I can understand it.