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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.


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.


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