There is something about Roger Ballen’s photographs that has the power to hold you captive – and a willing one, at that. His world of theatrics and shadows draw you in. You can’t exactly put your finger on what makes the images so hypnotising, but one thing’s for sure: you know you want to stay.

Fresh off its run at the Singapore International Photography Festival, Roger Ballen’s Menagerie, his first solo exhibition series in this part of the world, is now showing at Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur.

Spanning two decades of his career, this collection of 45 iconic photographs selected from past series such as Asylum Of The Birds, Boarding House, Outland, Shadow Chamber and the most recent The Theatre Of Apparitions, offer a glimpse into the mind of this photographer who has been acquainted with this art form for over 50 years. Each series can take up to several years to complete.

Over the years, Ballen’s photographs have been described as many things, and more often than not as dark and disturbing, eerie and grotesque.

However, he is known to respond that what the viewer sees in his work is in fact a reflection of their own repression and fears. The pictures mirrors what you don’t want to see, a piercing assault on your perception of reality and on the subconscious.

American photographer Roger Ballen pursues art photography that evokes strong, and often unsettling, emotions in viewers. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

American photographer Roger Ballen pursues art photography that evokes strong, and often unsettling, emotions in viewers. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

“There is nothing inherently disturbing about my pictures that is any more disturbing than anything else you see around you. The reason people find them disturbing is because these pictures challenge their sense of reality and instantaneously break through repressive networks in their minds,” says Ballen during an interview in Kuala Lumpur. He was in town for a quick visit in late August.

“When you look at my work, it is in your mind before you can close your eyes. It creates a certain level of anxiety, a sense of imbalance. The pictures have an ability to get into your mind, and this is what makes them unique,” he adds.

Born in New York, but based in Johannesburg in South Africa for more than three decades now, Ballen was introduced to photography when his mother started working at the Magnum photo agency Magnum in the early 1960s. He got his first camera when he was 13, and from then on, he and photography have been inseparable.

Even while working as a geologist in South Africa, he was doing documentary photography on the side. It was little more than a hobby at that time, until he started gaining recognition for his work and finally decided to pursue it full time.

Charting the progression of his work, it is clear that Ballen is on a quick track into the unpredictable and often deranged world of heavy symbolism and imagery. Exploring the world beyond photographs, he has been involved in projects such as music video I Fink U Freeky (2012), a collaborative effort with South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord. Shot in black and white and featuring images and subjects from Ballen’s photographic work, this is art photography meets popular culture shot to fame.

“Yes, my pictures have progressively become more painterly, more aesthetic vision, much more abstract and more interactive with other art media. I didn’t wake up one morning and say I’ll do it this way, it is just a natural progression, a gradual process. Even a juggler starts with two balls and works his way slowly up to 10. Or maybe he can never add more to the two,” muses Ballen.

But it never, ever gets easier, no matter how much experience and knowledge you have.

“After doing this for so long, I understand what I am doing more, but you deal with more and more complex issues and you don’t want to repeat yourself, so you are trying all the time to find parts of yourself, so it can never get easier,” he says.

How do you take complicated concepts and define that through a photograph that has meaning to you and meaning to others in a powerful way? What is it about a picture that makes elicits such a strong reaction from people? What makes an image take on a life of its own?

“The best pictures are those you don’t have words for. If you can have a word for a picture, it means it is mono-dimensional. The best pictures are the ones that are multi-layered and it cannot be easily categorised and put into a box,” he observes.

Banner, 2009.

Banner, 2009.

The photographs in Menagerie are all these, and perhaps even more, depending on how you look at it. But to the uninitiated in particular, this exhibition is as a comfortable easing into the world of Roger Ballen photography as you can get.

“One of the most important themes in my work throughout my career, especially in the last 20 years, has been animals. People here have not seen my work and everybody can relate to animals in one way or another. So I think the concept of my work dealing with animals is fitting for the show here.” Ballen’s work, out-of-kilter as they feel, has strong undercurrents running beneath the surface.

“I am not taking pictures for the animal welfare society, I am not taking pictures for Disneyworld; what you will see in this show is the way Roger Ballen perceives the word, and the concept, of animals. The concept of Menagerie is quite an open concept in a way, it encompasses lots of issues. It focuses on the human condition in various ways as it relates to animals, and that can be very multi-dimensional,” he says.

Even though the work in this exhibition incorporates other aspects of art forms (drawings, paintings), ultimately everything in Menagerie is still a black and white photograph, and a window into Ballen’s world.

Or, as he eloquently puts it, his photographs are “frozen moments of passages of Roger Ballen’s experience through time.”

“I like shooting in black and white because it is very reduced, very pure. A black and white photograph doesn’t pretend to depict reality, it is an abstract form and it is very formally precise,” he says.

“My work is provocative. It jolts people out of their commonplace reality and their complacency. Well, at least that’s what people say they do.”

Does a picture really paint a thousand words? For Ballen’s work, silence in the face of chaos is probably more profound.


Roger Ballen’s Menagerie is showing at Wei-Ling Contemporary, RT01 6th Floor, The Gardens Mall, Kuala Lumpur till Dec 31. Open 11am-7pm (closed on Mondays). Call 03-2282 8323/03-2260 1106. Visit: weiling-gallery.com.