This is Part 2 of our interview with renowned photographer Roger Ballen. To start from the beginning, read The Shadow Side: An Interview with Roger Ballen (Part 1) here.
Roger Ballen (1950, USA) has lived and worked in South Africa for more than thirty years, photographing small towns and townspeople in beguiling black and white images. Combining elements of documentary with fantastic construction, Ballen has progressively created images that extend beyond a signature aesthetic – they allow us to enter into an alternative Ballenian world. In this interview, Ballen speaks with us about darkness, the essence of images and how photographs can penetrate the inner-mind.
As your photographic practice was evolving over this time, what were the challenges that you experienced in trying to create that recognizable ‘Roger Ballen’ signature?
You know, I was never really concerned with my personal signature, the thing that’s always concerned me is that the picture had an integrated, organic, deeper-level meaning to it, and that was always the thing that has obsessed me for the last 30 years. So, if it doesn’t have that organic integration with deeper-level meanings, then I usually don’t print the picture up, and I’m always extremely formalistic. If you look at the pictures, even back in the ‘70s, you’ll rarely ever see a formalistic mistake. This has always been one of my trademarks – a very clear formal relationships in the photograph with hopefully more and more complex meanings.
If not the challenge of defining that signature, what was it that was challenging you then?
As I look back upon those pictures, I guess I had some subliminal ideas in my head, but this is what people don’t really understand so much is that, you can have all these ideas in your head, but photography isn’t painting or poetry or writing… when you go out there, you have to deal with the physical world. It’s the physical world I have to deal with, and I have try to find a photograph somehow or another. You have to deal with this physical presence in front of you and try to figure out how to transform it, and it’s very difficult and complex. It’s a real interaction between what’s out there and what’s in your head, and ultimately it’s about what’s in your head, and how you’re able to transform it and how you’re able to create a unique aesthetic, and that’s something that takes time and work and talent, commitment, passion – all these things.
You can’t really predict what you’re going to get. It’s like going fishing. Some days you catch fish quickly, some days you think you got a big one and it escapes you, and sometimes it feels like a small fish and when you pull it out of the water, it’s a big fish, it’s much more than you expected. There’s a lot of enigma to this.
When people look at a picture, they think it’s one moment, and I always tell them it’s like a painting, it’s made up of thousands and thousands of steps. Pictures take thousands of steps. Your mind is continually making all sorts of conscious and unconscious decisions on the way to making these pictures. A lot of these decisions don’t get to the conscious mind, your subconscious controls a lot of this process, but ultimately the conscious mind decides whether to take the picture or not. But there’s a lot of things going on in your mind in every way in every second that you’re really not aware of, and you have to be in touch with that in some way or another. You have to let the different parts of your mind, your conscious, scientific mind, work with your intuitive, emotional mind to make pictures. It’s not a process that’s easy to teach and it’s not something easy to talk about, and not something that is ever really repeatable because every good picture tells the viewer in a way that this is a special moment, which is an important part of my pictures. They’re still dealing with the moment, most of them. It’s a difficult thing to achieve in photography, which is why you see a lot of contemporary photography that’s not dealing with that, but I think it’s really a crucial thing in photography in order for the viewer to believe in the reality of the picture.
How do you deal with the inevitable gap between the idea in your mind and the image that you ultimately end up with?
Well, that’s what’s inspiring to me. People ask me what’s inspiring, and I say my own pictures. Because I created something out of nothing. It’s like having a baby for a woman… There was nothing, and then all of a sudden there’s this baby there. So, that’s what really motivates me to take pictures.
It’s like a mirror to yourself, and it’s not necessarily an apparent mirror, it’s a challenging mirror. It’s worth continuing for that reason. If I was doing pictures of things that I knew already, or doing commercial photography, I would have quit this a long time ago. I was a geologist for 30 years, and I did photography at the same time… I never did this as a profession, I did this as a hobby till I was 50 years old.
Do your successful images inspire you as much as your failed images?
The really successful ones are the ones that allow you jump to the next level, because they’re like creating a new realm of reality. I would refer to them as, like, the ‘genius’ type of pictures, where they completely transform and encapsulate another level of reality that I haven’t been aware of before, and a lot of people haven’t been aware of before. Those are my images that are quite inspiring. Sometimes you do well in a year and sometimes you don’t.
You said earlier that some of these concepts behind creating imagery are impossible to teach. You yourself are self-taught as a photographer, what has that process been like?
The best analogy I can give is that I’m like a dentist. And I have like a little pick that goes along the teeth, and if it starts to feel like a hole – uh-oh, I got a cavity. This is awful. It’s the same thing with me and photos: I look at the picture and try to find formally something that doesn’t work. It’s like a cancer inside the picture.
That’s the way I tend to look at pictures. I try to find the mistakes and learn from my mistakes. And I guess I learn from the ones that turned out better than I thought or could’ve imagined and that inspires me. It’s interactive.
I’ve told students often: you really have to be ruthless with your own pictures. It’s the only way you learn. You have to live up to the fact that most of them just don’t reach a certain level and then you’ve got to try to understand why and implicitly keep learning.
When thinking about your former occupation as a geologist, I can’t help but see that as a metaphor – that you were studying the substance of something, or digging deeper into what’s really there.
I think you’re right, that’s why I was interested in that in the first place. There was something implicit in what I was doing that fitted my personality, fitted the things that I was contending with psychologically. So, I could make the leap between looking at the earth surface and trying to project inward to the type of things that motivated me in my photography. Yeah, that’s probably why I really enjoyed that profession, even though the profession is a science, and a business, and it’s environmentally destructive as well. But there was something very linked to my personality and linked to the type of issues that were driving me to do photographs.
It sounds like you’ve also been inspired by psychological ideas and practitioners – for example, Jung and Freud.
The thing is, I have degree also in psychology, but this was 1972, so a long long time ago. I haven’t read these people in a long time. Inspiration takes you only so far, then you’ve still got to go make the picture.
The thing is, we’re made up of a couple trillion brain cells, so when we try to talk about how the mind works, how the mind creates, it’s almost impossible to understand. I really can’t say, the whole thing is ultimately an enigma to me.
You can’t put your finger on it, how this all works. You can’t put your finger on it. When you come out of your mother, before you can even talk, there’s a lot of things that you come into this world with, that have nothing to do with your actual experience in the world. There’s an aspect that has something to do with your genetics, it really does. We’re all different. Everybody carries something inside that you can’t necessarily explain that separates them from everybody else. And that’s not only true of humans, it’s true of animals. Go look at a litter of puppies or cats: they’re all a little different. So it’s not really easy to talk about inspiration. I just say it all comes back to hard work, passion, commitment and talent.
You’ve got a new body of work coming out, Apparitions. What is the psychological essence that you’re approaching through this series?
This goes really deep into your head. (laughs) Look, I don’t work with Photoshop, so it’s not like I decided I’m going to create an apparition like Disney creates an apparition. These are drawings that are done on glass and are photographed with black and white film.
I’ll be done in around six months. I’m just trying to get this thing finished, but it’s good that I’ve had the time to work on these pictures and get them right, so I’m glad. Sometimes you’re better off not rushing things.
You said most of your projects take around five years. How long have you been working on it?
This thing started in 2005, so that’s ten years ago.
Do you get impatient about that?
No, I don’t get impatient. It’s like with a baby, there’s no point getting impatient, because it’s not ready to come out. These things are finished when they’re finished. The body knows when the baby’s ready, and I know when this thing’s ready. Even though I work in a very disciplined way, I don’t rush anything. I’m not there to please anybody, I’m just taking these pictures for myself. I’m not there to please a publisher, or make a deadline. I’ve been doing this the same way for 50 years, this is the way I do things, this is why I’ve stuck to it, and this is why I’m committed to it, because it’s been my own journey. And I’m so happy that a lot of people enjoy the pictures and it’s given them something to think about, but it’s ultimately been a journey that’s given me a lot of fulfilment. You can’t rush it.