The Legend, Always Evolving

American born, South African based Roger Ballen has worked for fifty years with the medium of black and white film producing work both controversial and hugely influential. Forever seeking further personal evolution, he has moved into the realm of moving images with his recent collaboration with Die Antwoord, but here he discusses his upcoming book project, Asylum.

Angela Crane: First up are you?
Roger Ballen: I’m fine, I’m busy, taking lots of photographs toward my next project, which I have been working on for almost three years ... I think I’ve told you about it?

AC: Yes but can you tell us a bit more?
RB: I’m working on a project about birds, in a very surrealistic place. There are a lot of drawings in the photographs, and a lot of objects, not so many people’s faces... this is symbolic of my progression. You’ll find birds everywhere in the photographs, whether it’s feathers, or flying birds or sculptural birds, every picture has a bird relationship with it one way or another.  We are working towards a book which we hope to release in 2013. The name of the book is Asylum.

AC: What is it that’s important to you about birds? What has led you to this?
RB: Birds have an interesting metaphoric relationship...if one looks at the metaphors that birds are listed in, and relates them back to the time and place that they habitate, all sorts of interesting meanings come out of that. Those meanings are visual in nature and it’s up to people like yourself to describe them. I think in a lot of my photographs the meanings can be very contradictory in nature – in the photograph you can see a beautiful bird, but the place could be very strange and disturbing, so it’s a picture about beauty, it’s about something’s about either one of those things.

AC: Has it been an enjoyable process? A rewarding one?
RB: These start off with a lot of passion, and you have to have a lot of discipline to finish them. It’s rewarding to work on a project for a long period of time because you really delve into it, expand your photography, expand who you are. Your style evolves. I think that’s the most important thing about an artist – your art reflects who you are at any particular period of time. And this is crucial – if you really are an artist you should be doing the work until you find out more about yourself rather than trying to produce work that appeals to an abstract market.

AC: That’s quite an incredible thing to be able to say, that at your stage of career and life, you are still looking to evolve and learn about your craft...
RB: At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. One of the nicest things about what I do is I can look at a retrospective show and it deals with 45 years of my life, and it’s nice to be able to see how you’ve evolved and how one part of your life connects with another. It’s an interesting process.

AC: Roger, one of the questions I wanted to ask you was; If you couldn’t work as an artist anymore, what would you lose?
RB: I would lose an important tool that helps define my whole existence...I guess it’s one of the nicer things about being an artist, and one of the difficult things. being an artist isn’t something I would recommend as an easy career. But being an artist is one of the few tools humanity has to define itself, a concrete way to define yourself.