June 8, 2009

Roger Ballen: Telling Stories

Imagine a house: and this house has many rooms, more than you might have thought possible, perhaps an infinite number, each with some private drama, here brought unflinchingly before the lens and we know, of course, that these mysterious performances, the pictures themselves, are being staged for our benefit, but there remains the suspicion, however unfounded, that what we see might have happened regardless of “our” presence (the photographer’s presence), that what these photographs capture are stories already in progress. In other words, the images made by Roger Ballen don’t always seem like staged “events” but rather like a number of points in some endless narrative, one that will go on being lived after the photographer has gone, that his presence was merely fortuitous or tangential – he just happened to be there. This is the illusion that these pictures so profitably exploit, yet each is meticulous in its construction – there may well be “chance” elements, of course, but nothing is superfluous to the narrative intent of Ballen’s myth making, his own story, prying open the black box of human consciousness in order to see the labyrinths of that inner dream-time, places not of the world, but the world we have made – the world we carry within us, as fragile vessels of longing and despair, of hope and tenderness, of violence and lust. They have the spectral glow of memory, but not necessarily a memory that had to be lived. 

Indeed, some were greatly perplexed by Ballen’s sudden shift from a more traditional mode of “documentary” making, with all its assertions (caveats really) of humanistic interest, to the increasing self-referential work he makes today, but in truth Ballen has only ever had one story to tell and this “change” in his approach, if not his working methods, was surely the result of a decision on his part to reduce the scope of his interests to a point of absolute necessity. In many ways too our understanding of Ballen’s earlier work, its ostensibly “factual” tone, must be re-evaluated in light of his more recent achievements and even the most cursory of comparisons will reveal just how wilful a “documentary” photographer Ballen actually was – at least in terms of how the role has been traditionally conceived. The perspective of that work is so skewed, so subject to distortion on the part of the photographer, that it is hard to see it as anything other than as a statement of intent for his current style. This is not to say that the work is not successful on its own merits, because it is – rather, with the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that his pictures never fully belonged within that particular tradition. It would seem then that each “drama” is Ballen’s own, but they are also ours, in that they are basically anonymous – they are not seen as “types” but as lucid statements of fact: his “staged” photographs appear more like documents than his earlier work ever did.

Now it seems that the people he photographs are, in many ways, incidental to the pictures, even though it is obvious they are his collaborators and not just another example of photography’s fetish for the states and surfaces of poverty. While remaining very much grounded in the social realities of South Africa (it is their “skin” in many ways, their atmosphere) it is clear that they are not intended as parables of a specific experience, but rather of a generally human one. It might seem somewhat of a contradiction that Ballen should have “condensed” the narrative implications of his earlier work by opening his pictures up to the inchoate, if elemental, materials of dreaming – yet they are not pictured as mere circumstance, but as a process, as a story and in Ballen’s story-world there are rooms you can never leave, just as you can never “leave” your body – or the burden of consciousness. Their “story” and Ballen’s story is that of our endless struggle with the limits of existence – beyond which stands a tangible, irrefutable void. So even if, in recent years, the credibility (and the market) for elaborately staged photographs have enjoyed something of a boom, comparatively speaking, the principle influence on that sort of work has been cinematic, with deftly implied narratives and making use of the latest technology, Ballen’s staged images have as little relation to that style as his earlier work did to the documentary tradition, superficially alike as they may seem. In truth his photographs have more in common with the conventions of post-war existential theatre, with its taste for savage absurdities – his actors just happen to live their roles.

However, it might be further argued that how Ballen uses the people he photographs is a kind of exploitation and this charge is, in truth, harder to accommodate, given the grotesque intensity of their performances and how they behave (in the pictures) with a seeming lack of self-reflection. But then again it might well be just this aspect of how they “perform” their roles that allows Ballen to escape, at least in part, such considerations. The scenes themselves involve such a substantial degree of participation and exchange that it is hard to imagine his subjects are anything other than willing to act as they do – even if they cannot fully conceive of the camera’s power (the photographer’s power, really) to rupture that thin shell of artifice we all wear, even – or especially – in performance. It really seems as if the very contrivance of these scenes is in some way a “proof” of their authenticity – as if Ballen was saying that the closest as he can come to the truth of what he photographs is as fiction, as a kind of theatrical self-impersonation, which is perhaps why they seem so credible – acting as some composite version of themselves. No doubt Ballen sees his work as a challenge to those lingering conceptions of photography as a medium of the real, which is not to say that Ballen is involved with anything so juvenile as a “critique” of photography’s more traditional values, but rather that he wants to complicate the seemingly obvious relationship between what we see and what we can know about it – it is this issue of the “real” itself that interests him, as the crux of a philosophical dilemma that goes to the heart of our ideas about reality. After all, how do we separate the story from how it is told?