World renowned black and white film photographer, Roger Ballen


By Nadia Jansen van Vuuren

On 22 March 2012 the world renowned black and white film photographer, Roger Ballen’s, film photography exhibition, Play Pen, was opened at the NWU Potchefstroom Campus Gallery.

“Black and White is a very minimalist art form and unlike color photographs does not pretend to mimic the world in a manner similar to the way the human eye might perceive. Black and White is essentially an abstract way to interpret and transform what one might refer to as reality.” – Roger Ballen

“Where did it all start? With your first memory? Or perhaps in other parts of the mind?”. Although he cannot tell where it all started, he categorizes his work into five periods. The first started in 1982, with the theme of Dorps and Small Towns in South Africa (1982-1986). During these times people were still isolated and a genuine and unique environment existed in these dorps and small towns. Ballen was inspired to capture these esthetic elements, which made it so unique, so isolated, so different. He travelled about 3000km during this project, which ended in 1986.

Up to 1982, all his pictures were outside and he took pictures with only his 35mm 6×6 Rolex camera. Ballen started to use a flash and interiors began to interest him. In 1984 he began to take wire photographs as seen in Bedroom Bethulie (1984). These pictures have a sense of enigma and surrealism. One cannot say what it is about.

*Bedroom Bethulie, 1984

His second period, Platteland, Images from Rural South Africa (1986-1994), in photography began in 1986. During this period Ballen published a book, Dorps, which put him internationally on the map. He published nine books to date including, Boyhood (1979), Platteland (1994), Cette Afrique la (1997), Outland (2001), Fact or Fiction (2003), Shadow Chamber (2005), Boarding House (2009), and another upcoming book. You can read more about these books on his website. The pictures he took during this period and onward are formalistic. Forms are repeated throughout the pictures to create a focal point and to emphasize a certain message. Everything in the pictures means something. The picture, Dresie and Casie (1993) is probably his most famous picture, “…maby even more famous than myself”, says Ballen. This picture is also voted one of the most influential pictures of the millennium. The question about why a certain picture stays in one’s mind, intrigues Ballen. He states, “A photograph is a visual statement. The more visual it is, the harder it is to put it into words.” And this is exactly why there is no explanation for Ballen’s pictures. The emotion hits your gut first before any questions about what the picture is about, comes to mind.

*Dressie & Cassie, 1993

Man shaving on Verandah, Western Transvaal (1986) is on of Ballen’s person favorites during this period.

*Man shaving on Verandah, 1986

This period is followed by Outland (1994-2000). It is an important period for Ballen, when he stopped going to the countryside. Ballen says that he has said what he wanted. Ballen’s photography view also shifted in this period, now seeing himself as a photographer and an artist, but never calling himself a photographer because it was associated with the journalists which was not a good group to be associated with in those times of political rivalry.

His definition of a good photograph is: “to take a shot that is penetrating, which stands on its own two feet, a picture that is lasting.”

Another transition appears in his work with Portrait of Sleeping Girl (1999), where drawings on the walls and objects are in his pictures. Some of the images in the pictures Ballen drew himself, other he found there and ­­­the subjects in his photos drew some. This is the beginning of the next period in his work, called Shadow Chamber (2000-2004). This series of pictures is shot in little rooms. The first phase has a theatrical feel to it. “The photographer as director of the camera and the stage in the mind.” Ballen says. In the second phase the faces of his subjects starts to disappear. Ballen describes this period as “…backwards and forwards. I don’t distinguish between the two anymore.”

His second last period, Boarding House (2004-2008), is shot in a boarding house near Johannesburg and looks more like a warehouse.

*Fragments, 2005

Ballen’s latest work, 2008 up until today, doesn’t consist of a name yet but focuses around the theme of birds. Ballen’s work also featured in the South African band, Die Antwoord’s music video, I Fink U Freaky. Follow the link to view the music video

Ballen makes use of TMX 6×6 400 and Ilford Delta Pro 400 black and white film. He is not resistant towards digital photography, but he has been taking film photos for 50 years now. Ballen states that he’d never say never and doesn’t know what this technologically driven society might hold in for him. When asked if he thinks that film is making a come back, Ballen stated, “as we will never go around on horses, rather than cars, again, film will never be equal to digital photography again. It is exclusive to the group of passionate film lovers only.”

He has his own darkroom and develops most of his pictures himself. Many of his pictures, especially his latest worked, Shadow Chamber (2000-2004), has the feel of an edited, combined collage picture. But Ballen says that he never stages his pictures. A staged picture has a plastic, fast food feel to it. “When a picture can never be repeated again and captures a unique moment, it is not a staged picture.” Ballen never plans his pictures beforehand but rather discover them on location. “I see the world based on the way a camera captures the world.”

Discipline, passion, patience, and obsession are some of the most important characteristics Ballen thinks that he as a photographer consists of. What makes photography so difficult, according to Ballen, is that you capture the same place and the same people everyday, six times a week. And every picture must be different. Because he visits his photography locations very often, he builds relationships with his subjects. This relationship is also seen in the way he portrays the intriguing characteristics of his subjects, which gives them a unique, life-like feeling. He stares into the blank and smile, while speaking about his subjects, reliving the memories captured on film.

The Roger Ballen Foundation is dedicated to the advancement of education of photography in South Africa. RBF creates and supports programs of the highest quality to further the understanding and appreciation of the medium. Working with artists from around the world, their program enables students and general audiences to engage with notable contemporary photographic art that would otherwise not be seen in South Africa.

Many may say that his pictures are dark and gloomy, but Ballen states, “…from the dark comes the life.”

For more information on Roger Ballen visit his website at


By Nadia Jansen van Vuuren


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