Poverty is never pretty. We spend our lifetime trying to keep away from its ugliness and we’re always disgusted and shocked when we come across it. Yet there is something deep within the human psyche that is also drawn to its visual power because it says something about the human condition. Or so claims the […]
Poverty is never pretty. We spend our lifetime trying to keep away from its ugliness and we’re always disgusted and shocked when we come across it. Yet there is something deep within the human psyche that is also drawn to its visual power because it says something about the human condition.
Or so claims the American photographer Roger Ballen. He has spent the past 40 years taking black and white images of poor people in his adopted homeland of South Africa, and a retrospective show of his work, called Shadow Land, is currently on at the UK’s Manchester Gallery.
Ballen, 62, is a striking artist. His work, shot in black in white, offers a harsh and disturbing insight into the life of the underprivileged before and after South African apartheid, the notorious system of racial segregation enforced through legislation by the South African government between 1948 until 1994.
It was a nasty and violent period in history, when the majority black population was stripped of their human rights, while white supremacy and Afrikaner minority rule was absolute.
During apartheid Ballen took pictures of the dispossessed in South Africa’s dorps or rural communities.
Controversially, they were mainly of white people. Critics said the photos courted sympathy for the minority population while the brutalised, black majority, were unjustly ignored.
Why weren’t they the main focus of his work? Ballen, a complicated and cynical character, is quick to offer his side of the story.
“There were practical issues for why I didn’t take more photos of black people,” explains Ballen, during his visit to Britain for the opening of his show. “It was illegal to go into black neighbourhoods at the time. You needed a permit to do that. There was also a language issue. A lot of the blacks didn’t speak English. I also could identify and relate more with the white culture than the black one. I took photos of the people that interested me.”
Ballen dismissed people’s anger towards his earlier photos as a defence mechanism to “try and cover up their own insecurities and limitations about subjects such as race and class.”
The artist never set out to make a point about the injustices of apartheid or to take a political position. Instead, he wanted to tap into the psyche of the people in his photos, and to acknowledge the struggles of an ignored underclass in South Africa.
“I am a psychologically orientated artist who is interested in exploring the recesses of the mind and the human condition,” he says.
“The subjects in my photos became a metaphor for the state of being a white South African under apartheid,” says Ballen. “There was a terrible sense of vulnerability, marginalisation, alienation and an inability to cope with the events around them. These feelings of fear and insecurity are still there now, just more buried.”
As a white outsider living in South Africa, Ballen was always conscience of what was happening.
He felt disgusted by the racism around him. But he argues that living under communism would have been worse.
“For a white person it wasn’t like living in a fascist country because South Africa had a free press,” argues Ballen. “You could go on and on about the problems with apartheid and the failures of the government, just like what you would find in the west. There was open discussion the whole time.”
He acknowledges that there were serious repercussions for journalists who dug deeper into stories, especially for those who broke the law and interviewed black leaders. But he also argues that investigative journalists are always at risk, regardless of where they live.
“There is no true freedom anywhere in this world. Step over the mark in Britain or America and just see what happens,” he says. ”In London you can’t walk around anywhere without being captured on security camera. Don’t get fooled by this concept of freedom. It’s a stupid word. Freedom doesn’t exist. We all live with rules and we live with government and social structures that we are uneasy with. This applies in every country.”
Ballen adds that although the west is always quick to judge and blame South Africa for its appalling treatment of blacks, he argues that people must be reminded that apartheid was a response to Britain’s oppression of the Afrikaner population.
“Like in Israel, South Africa’s problems started off as a result of European persecution. Apartheid came about because the Afrikaners were disenfranchised by the British during the Boer war,” he says. “The Afrikaners wanted to protect their status after the Second World War and they did this through apartheid. They were competing on the level of the blacks and they didn’t want that.”
Ballen’s work has moved on since apartheid was abolished in 1994. His photographs from 1994 -2003 include portraits of people from different racial backgrounds, living cheek by jowl in cheap social housing. For the past decade his photos have focused on animals and parts of the body. “Since 2007, I have only taken one photograph of a human face. I stopped taking portraits shots and going to the countryside the year apartheid was lifted. “
These days, Ballen works closer to home in Johannesburg, where he lives with his wife and two children. His latest work is more staged and conceptual. Ballen defines his new art ‘documentary fiction’ where reality and fantasy is convincingly blurred.
This style comes to life in his recent collaboration with Die Antwoord, a popular rap-rave band from South Africa. Ballen’s photography has had a major influence on the band and had led to him directing their popular video I fink u freeky which has been viewed over 5 million times on You Tube.
Ballen is delighted by the attention the video has received and believes its success is due to the fact that its sensational image of an underclass resonates with a lot of people. “Everybody can identify with suffering at some level and my work says something about the human condition” he explains.
Throughout the interview, Ballen refuses to believe South Africa has a unique history of social and political deprivation. According to him, the whole world is suffering from similar problems, and it is this shared human experience that makes his work so popular.
“Apartheid in South Africa is officially over but it’s now replaced by greed and economic apartheid. It’s the same wherever you are,” says Ballen. “Look at England over the past 500 years. You are born to a certain class and your chance of succeeding is ten times more likely if you are from the right side of the tracks. Apartheid is here too, its just more subtle. Issues of inequality and oppression exist everywhere. Human society is imperfect, human life is imperfect. I am not going to change that. But I focus on the things that are important to me.”
Roger Ballen’s work can be seen for free at the Manchester Gallery until the 13 May.
The original story can be found at the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.