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