in­sight

Condé Nast House & Garden - - CONTENTS -

Con­tro­ver­sial and gritty, pho­tog­ra­pher roger Ballen tells us what he’s learnt

Re­dis­cover your­self.

As I trav­elled the world I be­gan to ob­serve and pho­to­graph boys. They seem to share a univer­sal lan­guage: in­stinct and raw emo­tion were pri­mary wher­ever I went. Through my mem­o­ries of boy­hood, I felt re­born. In­ter­act­ing with the boys I be­gan to recre­ate this es­sen­tial part of my­self, some­thing I had long since for­got­ten, some­thing that had seemed only a dream. My journey through the world now be­came a journey to re­dis­cover boy­hood.

In travel there is truth.

In 1973 I left the US on a five-year journey that would take me by land from Cairo to Cape Town, from Is­tan­bul to New Guinea. I trav­elled to far­away places on the planet, lo­ca­tions that tourists never went to. My ex­pe­ri­ences in th­ese lo­ca­tions left me with a deep un­der­stand­ing of the hu­man con­di­tion, which has re­mained with me ever since. It gave me a sense of in­de­pen­dence and con­fi­dence in my abil­ity to tran­scend dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.

Never give up on what is im­por­tant to you.

The re­ac­tion of the white South African pub­lic to the im­ages in my book Plat­te­land was im­me­di­ate, crit­i­cal and de­fen­sive. I re­ceived a num­ber of death threats and was os­tra­cized. Plat­te­land was re­ferred to daily as the ‘worst book of the year’.

At the time I was un­pre­pared for the at­tacks on my in­tegrity. As photography had been a pas­sion of mine I had no ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing to ex­plain my in­ten­tions. But the more I was crit­i­cised, the more con­fi­dent I felt about my work.

Un­pre­dictabil­ity and chance play the dom­i­nant roles in life.

A pho­to­graph can con­firm what we im­plic­itly un­der­stand but can­not ex­press. In my opin­ion, the best im­ages are those for which we can­not find words. Do chaos or or­der dom­i­nate the hu­man con­di­tion? It be­came clear to me that chaos per­vades, no mat­ter how hard we try to or­gan­ise our lives. Out of dis­or­der in chaotic places, my visual aes­thetic evolved. I was able to trans­form visual chaos into visual co­herency.

Learn to see the big­ger pic­ture.

Most pho­tog­ra­phers, both pro­fes­sional and ama­teur, are ob­sessed by the fore­ground of an image, by what the lens is fo­cused on. Con­trar­ily, I have tended to start more with the back­ground, with the ex­press in­ten­tion of later uni­fy­ing the pho­to­graph. Ul­ti­mately, ev­ery el­e­ment in an image, as in na­ture, must be pre­sented for a par­tic­u­lar rea­son, con­tribut­ing to a larger whole.

FROM LEFT: ROLY POLY,

1972; ROGER’S RET­RO­SPEC­TIVE BOOK BALLENESQUE;

ROGER BALLEN; FROGGY BOY, 1977

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