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Like most other people, I can’t get enough of Roger Ballen at the moment.

Doug McClermont has treated us to a great interview with Roger Ballen. It crescendos in a battery of ‘Ballenisms’ on the evolution of man, the rejection of political correctness and the common id of all great portraits.

Sergeant F. de Bruin, Department of Prisons employee, Orange Free State, 1992 © Roger Ballen

Sergeant F. de Bruin, Department of Prisons employee, Orange Free State, 1992 © Roger Ballen

RB: But what is the most important thing in that picture?

DM: His stare?

RB: The wire. Before I saw him I found the wire. And then when I turned the corner there he was … but I associate that picture with the wire. Without the wire there’s no photograph. That’s what the picture is about, not necessarily him. The wire looks like his lips.

DM: I know there’s a formal aspect to the images, but that face has seen so much.

RB: Form makes the content! Without your ribs you’re just a deflated nothing. The forms bring out the content and create meaning in themselves. So it’s very important to see the images as formal instruments as well as the content in and of itself.

DM: But it’s also narrative.

RB: It is, you can’t separate the two.

DM: This guy has seen so much and It’s all reflected right there in his mug. There are so many stories behind those eyes… what we bring to it.

RB: You have to find your own world in that picture. A lot of what you find you can’t explain. You can’t put into words. But you have an emotional relationship. Like life.

DM: If you could have put it into words, you would have written him as a character in a book.

RB: Basically, some people see him as a monkey. The character of a buffoon and a monkey in a prison guard, whatever. There are all those masks you see in the face. The face reveals the human condition in all sorts of ways. He’s funny, he’s tragic.

DM: Like the masks of theater…

RB: He’s vicious. He’s a monkey. He’s a pompous prison guard.

DM: He seems simultaneously weak and evil to me.

RB: Behind the face is always the monkey. Remember that. I’ve been living in Africa a long time. I’ve really seen a lot about the human condition. Behind the face is the monkey. You won’t get me to change that point. I don’t care if every PC person wants to shoot me for it.

DM: In terms of evolution, you mean?

RB: It’s Freudian…

DM: The id.

RB: Yes, the monkey is the id. Each image is like someone’ s id… and then I bring mine and put it on top of it. If it’s good artwork, it’s everybody id in some way. They’re heroes of the human id. Jess and Tessie, [the drooling twins] you see who you were a million years ago…a monkey…and you were that monkey. Subconsciously, genetically in the back your mind it’s the monkey. You’re a monkey. You see it our ancestors, that’s why the picture is so strong. Simple as that, because people relate to it. They’re brutal, they’re simple, they’re drooling but we relate to them. We see ourselves as humans deep inside them. It’s Neanderthal. Half man, half monkey.

DM: Chromosomes definitely come to mind when you see that image.

RB: No, it’s not about chromosomes – that’s PC thinking – the only thing that crosses your mind is: there’s my face. There’s my id. That’s what I come from. I come from a monkey. That’s your cousin in that picture.

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Doug McClemont is the former Editor-in-Chief of HONCHO, Torso, Mandate, Inches and Playguy. His writing regularly appears in publications such as Publishers’ Weekly, Library Journal and Screw. He has written introductory essays for several monographs on contemporary art and is currently at work on a book of short stories entitled Little Morticians.

Cut Loose. Roger Ballen, 2005

Cut Loose. Roger Ballen, 2005

In critiques of Roger Ballen‘s photography I haven’t seen more than mere passing references to Abu Ghraib. New York Art Beat coyly described Ballen’s prints as “Reminiscent of the images from Abu Ghraib” and continued, “Untitled (1069) shows a gaunt man clad only in sweatpants. His head hangs down, toes curled and fingers scraping the wall.”

Culture Vulture afforded Ballen just one sentence in its review of the After Nature group exhibition, “Roger Ballen’s b/w photos draw on our deep visual memories of Abu Ghraib, without truly recording any torture.”

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In real time and the real world Ballen’s work has absolutely nothing to do with Abu Ghraib. But my charge is to speculate on the meandering visual cultures and cross overs that wash over us daily.

Let me start by saying that Ballen has not in any way been influenced by Abu Ghraib. He began his Shadow Chamber work in 2001 and continued for 6 more years. His visual vocabulary was drawn from his own portfolio and observations from as early as the 70s when he photographed in homes of the poor with exposed wires, smears and semi-feral mammals.

Prowling. Roger Ballen, 2001

Prowling. Roger Ballen, 2001

New York Photo Festival will have to be special in 2009 if it is to eclipse Ballen’s show-stealing lecture of last years inaugural show. Just as Ballen had quietly plied his craft for decades without much commercial interest, so he quietly took to the stage for the unrockstar 11am slot on the first morning. Many concluded at midday that they may as well go home there and then. Ballen was it; “So if you missed it sorry the festival might just be all down hill after this.”

Why? Apart from being unexpected, Ballen took the viewer deep into a closely controlled isolated world and into the psychological uncertainties of his vision. Ballen is the perfect foil to typologies, minimalist cliche, first-project enthusiasm and the manicured fine art of contemporary photography.

Effigy and Prowling are disconcerting, bizarre, staged and lit with hard flash – in other words they hold the same characteristics as the Abu Ghraib images.

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It seems the comparison is so glaring no-one has wanted to state it! Is it with guilt we accept Ballen’s work into an art aesthetic, and then stand with repulsed incertitude before the Abu Ghraib images? Much has been made of Ballen’s hypnotic work and his vortex of image and dis-logic. I wouldn’t suggest he is a mystic seer, but if some sort of visual, global Zeitgeist exists, I would suggest that Ballen tapped it. Few commentators have readily acknowledged this visual convergence. Why? Strange forces.

We have argued the ethics and presence of torture in non-photographic media, but have we failed to satisfactorily take up issues surrounding the aesthetics of torture in photography?

Maybe all the visual culture theorists were worn out and distracted after the publication of the Abu Ghraib images; maybe I am writing this a year or two too late; maybe visual similarities aren’t enough for a water tight hypothesis? But, you must admit the smudging and blurring of faces is further provocation toward comparison and spinal shudders.

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There are some amazing resources online for Roger Ballen. The indubitable Lens Culture has a 25 image gallery and 18 minute audio interview.

Heather Morton compares his Ballen’s with Ralph Meatyard, Joel Peter-Witkin and Tim Roda.

Colin Pantall does the best blogosphere survey of Ballen’s aphorisms, antics and work.

Hot Shoe has a solid review of the Shadow Chamber book.

The V&A offers three very short audio snippets by Ballen.

And, these are the best of the articles provided by Ballen’s own website – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,

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