Roger Ballen

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Roger Ballen
Born1950 (age 68–69)
ResidenceJohannesburg, South Africa
Alma mater
Notable work
  • Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa
  • Platteland
  • Outland
  • Shadow Chamber
  • Boarding House
  • Asylum of the Birds
Spouse(s)Lynda Ballen
  • Amanda Ballen
  • Paul Ballen

Roger Ballen (born 1950 in New York City, New York) is an American photographer living in Johannesburg, South Africa, and working in its surrounds since the 1970s. His body of work, developed over a period of four decades, began in the documentary field but his approach has widened to include a fictionalised visual dialogue between people, their architectural space, found objects and domesticated animals. His approach has been described as "unusual" and "exciting".[1][2]

Ballen describes his photography as psychological, exploring humanity's "shadow side" rather than being "dark". He say: "Shadow is better than dark, because dark for a lot of people connotates evil, and I always say it’s just the opposite. [...] The pictures shouldn’t be seen as dark, and I’m not quite clear what is ‘dark’, anyway."[3]

Art historian and curator Peter Weiermair said that Ballen’s collaboration with his subjects meant that he had forsaken the critical role as chronicler of events, allowing his figures to become "protagonists in an existential drama".[4] In earlier works these were individuals experiencing the dissolution of one order in South Africa in place of another; in the process they retreated to hidden territories explored by Ballen.[5]

Weiermair said that the game of showing and seeing, involving model and photographer, is rendered irrelevant, while Didi Bozzini wrote that the relation between Ballen and his subjects disrupted the "laziness of our everyday gaze".[6]

According to Weiermair, the archetypal character of Ballen's images "touches our subconscious", yet it is also through the conventions of black and white photography, outsider art and theatre of the absurd that we comprehend the interiority of Ballen’s landscapes. His practice has however been extended to include video and conceptual installations, pushing the camera further from its traditional role of "recording or capturing the real" while retaining its use as "provocateur" for an examination of all that is human, according to critic Robert J. C. Young.[7]

Early life[edit]

Ballen was raised in Westchester County outside New York City. His father was an attorney, his mother Adrienne was a member of the famous photo agency Magnum from 1963 to 1967 prior to opening the Photography House Gallery with Inge Bondi in New York City in 1968. Ulrich Pohlmann notes that he became acquainted with the photographs of Andre Kertezs, Edward Streichen, Paul Strand, Elliot Erwitt, Bruce Davidson and Henri Cartier-Bresson either from published photographs in albums or through meeting them. He got his first camera when he was 13, later studied psychology at the University of California, Berkeley with its countercultures and, as Pohlmann records, he produced his first series of portraits of people who had taken part in student demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

After his mother’s premature death in 1973, disillusionment sent him away to travel across Europe, Asia and Africa. He began shooting scenes of street life and published Boyhood in 1979 which Pohlmann cites as "impressive photos of boys that Ballen had taken while seeking to recreate his own childhood".

Returning to the US Ballen studied for a PhD at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, and travelled to Johannesburg in 1982 where he found work as a geologist and mining entrepreneur.

Ballen regards the years from 1974 to 1978 as a "psychological period" of turning inward culminating in the publication of Boyhood before a "dead period" prior to the publication of a landmark work that would alter his course.


Ballen first came to prominence as a photographer with the publication of Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (Cape Town: Clifton Publications, 1986). Young calls the view of the Afrikaner underclass dispassionate "without comment or obvious involvement" – possibly akin to Ballen's portrayal of the architecture that surrounded them. As a practising geologist, on field trips Ballen had encountered his subjects living "under the imagined benefits of the policies of the regime". The landscape photographs in Dorps would mark the end of Ballen's foray into outdoor photography. But the book also marks the beginning of Ballen's use of the middle format camera and flash, as well as the deliberate choice of a square negative and black and white film that Ulrich Pohlmann calls his "trademark" allowing for "tight, well-balanced images".

The year 1994 saw the publication of Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa (Johannesburg: William Waterman Publications, 1994 and republished as Platteland Revisited: Images from Rural South Africa, Pretoria: Protea Publishing, 2013) called by Susan Sontag "the most impressive sequence of portraits I've seen in years".[8]

Projects that followed have included Outland (London: Phaidon, 2000; reprinted 2009; revised 2015) with the expanded edition containing 30 previously unpublished pictures, introduced by Peter Weiermair former Director of the Rupertinum in Salzburg, Austria and the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, Italy and with a new essay by Elizabeth Sussman, Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Shadow Chamber (London: Phaidon, 2004) further explored the underbelly or the "shadow chamber" of existence. In his oeuvre the book took major leaps into Ballen's metaphoric dimension with multiple conscious and subconscious meanings: ambiguous images of people, animals and objects posed in mysterious, cell-like rooms occupying a grey area between fact and fiction, blurring the boundaries between documentary photography and art forms such as painting, theatre and sculpture.

As Robert A Sobieszek wrote in his introduction to Shadow Chamber: "To discern fact from fiction in this work may be simply impossible; to tell acting from real life may also be; to bother with such discernment may not be only futile but missing the point".[9]

Boarding House (London: Phaidon, 2008) with over 70 black and white images contained tableaux with a greater emphasis on drawn and sculptural elements, and a sense of collaboration between the artist and his subjects. With an introductory essay by photography curator David Travis - former chair and chief Curator in the Photography Department at the Art Institute of Chicago - describing a space of transient residence, of comings and goings, of people sheltered in a place used for their immediate survival.

Basic and fundamental, the structure is furnished with objects necessary for an elementary existence, decorated with evocative drawings, and littered throughout with animals. Remnants function there as physical symbols of events that have occurred in the space; broken pieces of a functional reality exist as the leftovers of scenarios that have been played out there. The altered sense of place of the temporary abode created a sense of alienation, a jumping off point for the imagination to run wild.

Asylum of the Birds (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013) was a monograph of iconic photographs all taken entirely within the confines of a house in a Johannesburg suburb, the location of which has remained a tightly guarded secret. The cast was made up of inhabitants of the house, both people and animals, and most notably the ever-present birds, all performing within a sculptural and decorated theatrical interior created and orchestrated by Ballen.

In 2006 the co-leader of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, Yolandi, contacted Ballen proposing a collaboration. In 2008, together with Ballen, Die Antwoord began to appear in a series of photographs that incorporated his later aesthetic and which ultimately would take his imagery to a new audience of millions.

In 2011, Ballen directed the music video for the song "I Fink U Freeky" which has garnered over 76 million views on YouTube.[10]

Roger Ballen - Die Antwoord: I Fink U Freeky (Munich: Prestel, 2013) was a book collaboration with Die Antwoord incorporating a conversation with the group's leaders, Yolandi and Ninja, as well as an essay by South African journalist and critic Ivor Powell. In it Powell writes that the works are "more than just a visual record of oddities, eccentricities and characteristic features. The photograph embodies a series of significant choices on the part of the photographer ... What Ballen finds a way of articulating and moving inside is the secret life of the soiled self-projected into photographic imagery".

In 2015, Ballen extended his conceptual installation artwork when he was invited by Finland’s Serlachius Museum in Mantta to transform a real, disused house found in a Finish forest into a complete sculptural entity to be installed in the largest exhibition space of the museum's New Pavilion.

The work coincided with a new publication, The House Project (London: Oodee, 2015) with long-time collaborator, writer Didi Bozzini that is structured so as to move away from a historical exposition of Ballen's work in favour of a psychological one, evoking possible literary and philosophical references in his work.

The book is structured as a house with chapters evoking architectural space: The Cellar, The Ground Floor, The First Floor, The Attic. Literary references include James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Mark Twain, Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe while philosophical references include Gaston Bachelard and Carl Gustav Jung.

The House Project is also the title and conceptual starting point for Ballen's most recent exhibition of the same name running in his home town, Johannesburg at Gallery MOMO until March 2016.

The selection of works include his most recent method of constructing archival pigment prints with light, heat, staining and smearing glass. About this process Young questions, "Are these images, in fact, still 'photographs' in the conventional sense at all? ... Instead of presenting images of the real, his photographs have come to delineate and describe the textured traces of a new medium of drawing that extends the forms of reality that photography can capture".[11]

Ballen's frequent collaborator and the recipient of multiple dedications in his books is the photographer and designer Marguerite Rossouw.


Publications by Ballen[edit]

  • Boyhood. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1979. ISBN 0877540918.
  • Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa. Cape Town: Hirt and Carter, 1986. Reprinted by Protea Boekhuis, 2011.
  • Platteland. Rivonia (ZA): William Waterman, and London: Quartet, 1994; New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
  • Cette Afrique là. Photo Poche series. Paris: Nathan, 1997.
  • Outland. London: Phaidon, 2001.
    • Expanded edition. Phaidon, 2015.
  • Fact or Fiction. Paris: Kamel Mennour, 2003, ISBN 291417109-9.
  • Shadow Chamber. London: Phaidon, 2005.
  • Boarding House. London: Phaidon, 2009.
  • Animal Abstraction. Exhibition catalogue Galerie Alex Daniels, Amsterdam: Reflex, 2011
  • Roger Ballen. Photo Poche series. Paris: Nathan, 2012.
  • I Fink U Freeky. Random House Prestel, 2013.
  • Asylum of the Birds. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014. ISBN 9780500544297. With an introduction by Didi Bozzini.
  • The House Project. Oodee, 2015. ISBN 9780957038974. Edition of 1000 copies.
  • The Rome Ballen Times. Rome: Punctum. Edition of 200 copies.

Publication paired with another[edit]

Unleashed, Bielfeld: Kerber Publishing, 2017 with Hans Lemmen .Editor: Jan-Philipp Fruehsorge , ISBN 978-3-7356-0356-2

Contributions to publications[edit]

  • Contatti. Provini d'Autore = Choosing the best photo by using the contact sheet. Vol. I. Edited by Giammaria De Gasperis. Rome: Postcart, 2012. ISBN 978-88-86795-87-6.


  • Sani Festival, Best Solo Exhibition, Greece, 2000
  • Special mention: UNICEF Photo of the Year 2001
  • Photo-eye, Best Documentary Title, Best Photography Books of 2001
  • PhotoEspana, Best Photographic Book of the Year, Spain - 2001
  • Top 10 Exhibition, Vince Aletti, Artforum - 2002
  • Photographer of the Year, Rencontres d' Arles - 2002
  • Citigroup Prize, finalist, UK - 2002
  • Top 10 Exhibition, Matthew Higgs, Artforum-2004
  • "Selma Blair Witch Project" - New York Times Magazine, October 31, 2005
  • Art Directors Club Award Photography - 2006
  • I Fink U Freeky. Award for best music video at the 20th Short Vila do Conde International Film Festival, Portugal, 2012
  • Best Music Video, I Fink U Freeky, Plus Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Bydgoszcz, Poland
  • Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Edition 46, Artist of the Year, published on 14 November 2014


Ballen's work is held in the following permanent collections:


  1. ^ Ulrich Pohlmann, Roger Ballen: Photographs 1969-2009, Bielefeld: Kerber PhotoArt, 2010
  2. ^ Roger Ballen,"About Roger",, October 6, 2014. Retrieved 2016-01-25.
  3. ^ Matthews, Katherine Oktober (May 14, 2015). "The Shadow Side: An Interview with Roger Ballen". GUP Magazine.
  4. ^ Peter Weiermair,"Portraits as Still Lifes: the Photographs of Roger Ballen",, June 19, 2001. Retrieved 2016-01-25.
  5. ^ Roger Ballen, Outland, London: Phaidon, 2000
  6. ^ Roger Ballen, Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Absurd, Oslo: Pug, 2015
  7. ^ Ed Lars Schwarder, Roger Ballen: Retrospective, Copenhagen: Nikolaj Kunsthal, 2013
  8. ^ Susan Sontag,"Editorial Review",, August 15, 2015. Retrieved 2016-01-25.
  9. ^ Robert A Sobieszek,"Shadow Chamber",, October 14, 2014. Retrieved 2016-01-25.
  10. ^ Roger Ballen & Die Antwoord,"I Fink U Freeky", YouTube, January 31, 2012. Retrieved 2016-01-25.
  11. ^ Craig Allen Subler, Christine Mullen Kreamer, Washington DC/London: NMAfA/Smithsonian Institution, Delmonico Books, Prestel, 2013
  12. ^ Galería la Aurora,"Artista: Roger Ballen", Galería la Aurora. Retrieved 2016-01-26.
  13. ^ Stedelijk Museum,"Collection: Roger Ballen", Stedelijk Museum. Retrieved 2016-01-26.

External links[edit]