Walking the fine line…the photography of Roger Ballen

I don’t think I’ve ever had a more difficult time trying to define where a photographer falls in the spectrum of photography than I have in viewing the work of Roger Ballen. His photos from Plattelands his 1994 book on the poverty stricken townships that surround Johannesburg, seem at first glance to fall firmly into the photojournalism camp, but one can’t help making comparisons with Diane Arbus here. While there is a continuity, his later work enters the realm of the surreal. It’s a fine line between documentation and art, but Ballen handles this delicate balancing act with unbelievable agility.

Of photography, he says, “The problem with photography is the mechnics are too easy. Everybody can buy a camera, everybody can take a photo. In fact, photography is a difficult art form to achieve anything with, because there are trillions or billions of images floating a round and you have to create a vision that separates itself from that, and that’s a big job. I tell you it’s not easy.”

If you’ve got an hour to spare, I recommend you take a journey through the pictures of Roger Ballen here. They are absolutely compelling .

Birdwoman from Shadow Chamber, 2003

Birdwoman from Shadow Chamber, 2003


Filed under art, Photographer, Photography, portraits

2 responses to “Walking the fine line…the photography of Roger Ballen

  1. I saw a major exhibition of Ballen’s at the Art Gallery of Western Australia a couple of years ago – “Brutal, Tender, Human Animal”. I didn’t like it. Having said that, I can’t deny the extraordinary degree of commitment Ballen obviously has to his craft. His pictures are dark, shocking, brutal and confrontational, and were I a younger man with a less world-weary sadness about the human condition I would no doubt think these pictures were thrilling. Instead I find them highly exploitative and unnecessary, much the same way I feel about photographic students who, in their eagerness to shock, and to say “look; I was there, I saw this” take dreary and predictable pictures of drunks on park benches and broken down headstones in spooky graveyards.
    So, a fine line indeed. As documentary photography, I don’t need or want to know, as I’ve said. As to art, well, he appears to me to try too hard to justify the horror of his vision by constructing pictures that contain some sort of art construct.
    In the end though, Ballen’s world is one that I would rather do without.

  2. I’ll take that as a vote against then, Simon:-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s