In 1999, I was a peon at a photography organization, charged with running the slide projector at the meetings where artists were selected for exhibition. In one unforgettable session, after clicking through hundreds of uninspired transparencies, an image of two drooling idiots appeared on the screen. Twins, the brutes with elephantine ears faced the camera warily, arms crossed, evidently unaware of the thick ropes of saliva hanging from their open mouths. It was a searing image that recalled the best works of Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon's In the American West, but each piece we saw after that was more theatrical and inexplicable than the previous: grinning men with wire cages over their heads; emaciated drifters crouching behind couches; children biting themselves; fetal puppies cradled between dirty feet. They were disturbing, purgatorial visions by Roger Ballen, a South African photographer who was then still relatively unknown. The members of the exhibition committee were stunned by the photographs' visceral power, but the conversation was soon dominated by a discussion of "exploitation," and the work was passed over for exhibition.
In the years since, I've learned that it's difficult to have a conversation about Ballen without invoking the issue of exploitation, even though the artist photographs fewer and fewer people these days. This Wednesday, May 7, the 58-year-old artist will speak at a Portland Institute for Contemporary Art-sponsored event, and Portlanders can witness 20 of Ballen's career-spanning prints—including several that are making their US debut—at Quality Pictures through June 28. While Ballen's portrayal of disenfranchised, rural Afrikaners will surely generate conversations that toe the line of ethics and political correctness, to focus on the issue of exploitation is to miss the greater 90 percent of his brilliance.
When the New York-born geologist landed in South Africa nearly 30 years ago, mineral exploration took him to "nearly every small town and village in South Africa." Initially photographing the ramshackle shacks that marked the rural countryside, Ballen eventually began to make portraits of the people he met—many of whom lived in abject poverty and appeared deranged before Ballen's camera. These became the iconic, controversial portraits for which he's still best known, although few people discuss the work's roots in the politics of apartheid, which was being disassembled as Ballen photographed his way across the country. These subjects, Ballen says, "were faced with revolution, fear, alienation, isolation, and rejection. The way these people were photographed, in my mind, was a metaphor for what a lot of people were feeling. They were feeling unsettled, alienated, and not able to cope in all sorts of ways."
That people rarely speak of this seemingly critical aspect only belies the tenuous relationship Ballen's photography has with empirical reportage. The reason his early portraits have survived in the popular imagination is that they transcend politics and tap into far deeper veins of the human condition. All of Ballen's images, from the early portraits to the newer scenes of hieroglyphics, rats, and bucket fires, are grimy visions of power, chaos, formal precision, disconnectedness, and physicality.
Motivated by the psychological unrest the images provoked, Ballen grew more theatrical in his portraits, introducing props and animals into the mysterious, Beckett-like psychodramas. Gradually, the human presence began to disappear from Ballen's photographs—just an outstretched hand here, a pair of dangling feet there—and child-like wall drawings began to pop up, almost as if surrogates for the people who once dominated his images.
"One thing I [was] trying to define," Ballen says of his shift away from portraiture, "was, 'Is chaos fundamental to the world around us, or is order?'" This isn't the type of question that most photographers I know set out to answer, and it's the kind of critical inquiry that's thwarted when audiences have reactionary judgments about the exploitation issue. In the countless hours I've spent considering Ballen's work since that first committee meeting, I've had to resign myself to the fact that no amount of mental gymnastics could extinguish my belief that his early works were somewhat exploitative (a charge I do not hold to any of his later work). But that hardly nullifies the shockwaves of raw theatricality that emanate from his photographs, and the silent argument they engaged within me provided fodder for invaluable stretches of self-examination. Wrestling with the grotesque is not a hazard of dealing with Ballen's images—it's the point of it. Roger Ballen has crafted a visionary collision of order and chaos that makes him one of the most important photographers alive; to deny the complexity of his photographs is to sidestep their reverberating power.