Released yesterday, Roger Ballen’s new book Outland shows work from one of the most influential documentary photographers of the 21st century. His strange and uncensored work confronts the viewer and challenges them to take a journey into their own minds as he explores, through his work, deep thoughts of his own.
His expressive documentary style photos are compared to photographers like Diane Arbus. He creates work that evokes the absurdity of the human condition, and like Arbus’s it engages the viewer. His images have the potential to fascinate, or appall, but will undoubtedly stick with you once you have left the room. As with Arbus’s work, this is a crucial part of the unsettling power of their imagery.
Ballen’s images give a view into the lives of his subjects. They capture evidence of an intensely imaginative but deeply troubled soul. His recent images of South Africa’s poor give an insightful look at the disabled or mentally unstable. He uses derelict space to create elaborate sets in South African cities, in which the poor and damaged have been exiled. His work focuses on actual outsiders, giving you a realistic portrait of his world.
His images are always thought provoking and intriguing, elaborate and primitive, planned and always unexpected. Certain symbolism is used again and again: animals, homemade sculptures, masks, dolls, blankets, writings and crude painting. This gives his imagery a distinct and recognizable style.
The monochrome highlights the rawness and drastic difference between the peculiar faces, bodies and poses of his subjects, and the designed sets, all-adding to the unsettling effect in all his pictures.
For year’s Ballen struggled selling his documentary photographs, but is now represented by the art powerhouse Gagosian. In 2012, he gained even more recognition by working with South African rap-rave group Die Antwood. He directed the visually disturbing video for their single I Fink U Freeky. Yolandi Visser, the band’s singer, described Ballen as “the weirdest person I have ever met in my life”. The video got over 30m hits on YouTube so was the perfect platform for Ballen’s work to be appreciated on a large scale.
Ballen quotes Carl Jung and the 1960s psychoanalyst RD Laing as inspirations for his work, he say’s “Jung’s idea of the shadow self is in there, for sure,” “The darkness in all of us that we suppress. I often think that when people react to my pictures, the darkness they see is a reflection of their own repression.”