Pursuing his scientific career, Ballen took photos as “a hobby” wherever he went, always using black and white film and thinking deeply about his art.
“It’s not something I did just in my spare moments,” Ballen tells CNN. “I thought about photography and have been thinking about photography every day of my life since I’ve been about 18 years old.”
Ballen’s first published photographs were documentary in style, and examined the forgotten lives and villages of South Africa’s poor communities.
“I spent 30 years of hardly selling the work to anybody, and doing it out of gut and passion, and there were certain years in South Africa where I was ostracized,” says Ballen. “I always say that in the 1990s in South Africa my only friend was my dog.”
South Africa’s apartheid government may not have appreciated Ballen’s photography, but his distinct, daring work eventually became so popular that he quit his job as a geologist and became a full time photographer.
Although still deeply confrontational, he began taking more of an artistic license with his work.
While his subjects have changed over distinct photographic periods — from villages, birds, humans and other animals — his focus on the mind, and the way it can trap people, is a running theme throughout his work.
“I see myself as a psychological photographer,” Ballen says. “There is no way out of the mind.”
His latest work, “The Theatre of Apparitions,” is yet another step deeper, exploring people’s subconscious and their view of the afterlife through a series of photographs of drawings made on glass.
Ballen reflects upon the deeper meaning of his new, otherworldly works and his career below.
CNN: Why did you choose black and white photography over color?
Ballen: I started in black and white from the early days and I like black and white because it’s very reduced, it’s very abstract, it doesn’t pretend to be capturing so-called reality. It’s a pure art form. And you can’t separate my photographs from the fact that they’re in black and white. The meaning is synonymous.
CNN: Which photographers have had the greatest influence on your work?
Ballen: People like André Kertész, who was a Hungarian photographer who moved to the United States. He gave me some understanding on what photography as an art could be.
And then there were people like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who told me something about the moment. I believe it’s still the most important thing to understand in photography, that you’re actually freezing a moment that can’t be repeated. There were also photographers like Elliott Erwitt, who taught me about humor in photography.”
CNN: What do you believe is the major difference between between photography as an art form and documentary photography?
Ballen: I think a work of art, first of all, deals with more philosophical, existential universal issues. You know, what is the nature of human condition? What is the nature of order versus chaos? What is the relationship of human to animal?
So-called documentary or snapshot photography is dealing with a particular moment in a particular historical time and doesn’t go beyond that period. If you don’t understand the history when you look at it, then it doesn’t really say very much.
CNN: Your works have been described as dark, strange and mysterious, among many other adjectives. How do you describe them?
Ballen: Dark or disturbing wouldn’t be words that I would use. Because when people say that, they are saying that the pictures are penetrating something in themselves that makes them nervous, so they call them dark.
But if the pictures are inviting and bring forth a certain emotion to the viewer and they call them dark, I guess they should probably call them light because they are giving them something that they haven’t been aware of or don’t want to be aware of. So dark might be light.
I would say the words mysterious, dream-like, enigmatic, metaphoric might be good ways to categorize my work and I would hope my pictures are all of those or some of those.
But the best way to describe them is Ballenesque, it just deals with my aesthetic, my state of mind. And I don’t see anything is necessarily dark or light or anything. Everything is just what it is and it’s just a reflection of who I am, which ultimately is quite mysterious.”
CNN: How has your work changed and developed over your long career?
Ballen: I’ve changed in a lot of ways but I’m still the same, so if you look at the work over the years, there are elements in a lot of those photographs that carry a certain message, carry a certain aesthetic. On the other hand, the works have become much more complex and the aesthetic has become much more unique, and so the work has gotten to the point where people can say well that’s a Roger Ballen photograph.
CNN: You’re very disciplined in the way your approach your work. Where does that come from?
Ballen: My father was super disciplined. He was a lawyer in New York City and he was a workaholic and so I think I took after him and my mother was very artistic, so I have these two sides to me.
“Sometimes I compare myself to the old superman movies that I used to watch as a ten-year-old in New York on television. He used to be Clark Kent working for the newspaper in the office and at some point he just goes out, changes into Superman. Well that’s sort of what I can do, I can just shift from something very business, scientific, logical into the world that I work in within seconds, without even thinking about it.”
“This is a very different project because I didn’t use physical reality, they are all drawings that I made on glass and then photographed. So they are photographs but they’re not taken in three-dimensional space. I don’t think I would’ve been able to make these without all my experience in photography. But they still are drawings and through them I was able to get to a different place in my mind.
They deal with the issue which is the most important issue that people deal with subconsciously, and that is what happens after you die. So in all cultures, there’s ghosts or ancestors, so these are photographs of spirits. Photographs that are pondering what do you look like, what does it look like in the afterlife?
CNN: Did your art help you come to terms with the afterlife?
“You know, you don’t get there. You can’t get there, it’s impossible. But I think you get to the point where I’ve gotten to. When I was younger I had all the answers. Then, for a couple of decades I had all the questions — and I don’t have any answers to any questions anymore.
“You get to a point where your mind just shuts off and it is what it is. I think if you pretend you have answers to these things then maybe you’re on the wrong track. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work towards something. That’s a crucial point.”