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Interview with Roger Ballen


This month Roger Ballen releases an expanded edition of his critically acclaimed book, Outland published by Phaidon Press which features 45 previously unpublished photographs. Along with this new incarnation of the book, Ballen has collaborated with director Ben Crossman for the second time to create an accompanying video for Outland, which re-introduces some of Ballen’s protagonists 15 years after the fact.

In the video Stanley, who has appeared in many of Ballen’s photographs over the years, takes us on a tour of the Outland as he goes about his day, catching rats and letting them go. Stanley introduces a number of other characters; Little Dirkie, Blind Dirkie and Stefanus, all recognizable from past Ballen images. We see the poverty and violence that exists in this community in Johannesburg, South Africa. The video is in brash contrast to the still photographs with a cacophony of screeches, laughter and breaking glass, mixed with difficult street scenes, carcasses, Stanley playing with this dentures and brief flashes of the original Outland photographs collaged throughout.

Many will find the video far more difficult to watch than to appreciate the original photographs; words like ‘disturbing’ and ‘dark’ will be used to describe the experience of it, but for Roger Ballen the Outland is one of the most authentic places on the planet, the people who live here have been his muse and have contributed to his creative landscape since the mid 1990’s.

I recently spoke with Roger about the re-release of Outland and his new video.

Why are you re-releasing Outland now after 15 years?

Outland became an iconic book very quickly after its publication in 2001. The first two editions sold out completely. I happened to mention to Phaidon Press that there were a number of unpublished images from this series that I felt made the project worth revisiting. After the people at Phaidon saw these rediscovered photographs they were enthusiastic about reprinting an expanded version of the original publication.

How do you see the Outland project now, and what it communicates to the development of your career?

Outland was a seminal project in my career as I began to view myself as a photographer/artist who went beyond documenting so called reality to transforming it. The photographs I made during this time evolved through interaction / a theatre between the subjects and me that ultimately reflect on human absurdity.

Outland was the last series in which human portraiture played a large role in my work. Nevertheless, this series was a crucial ‘building block’ in the development of my later work.

Can you tell us a bit about the video project that accompanies the launch of this new collection of imagery?

The video, directed by Ben Crossman recounts a journey he made to rediscover and document some of the people that I photographed in the Outland between 1995-2000.  He spent a substantial amount of time there with Stan, who passes his days catching rats only to let them go again. I feel this video captures some of the complexity of  the meanings in my work and expresses important metaphors related to the human condition.

This is your second collaboration with Ben Crossman (the first was Asylum of the Birds in 2014). What made you decide to start using video as a promotional tool for your work?  

I feel without a doubt that the most effective means to introduce ones images to a non-photographic audience is through videos. This medium has the potential to reach an audience of millions of people. I did not create this video as an advertising tool;  I believe it is an important parallel collaborative artwork with Ben that stands on its own. I am still amazed by the fact that over 60 million people viewed the video, ‘I fink u freeky’ that I directed with Die Antwoord (the South African rap-rave group from Cape Town which was released in 2012).

Anyone who has spent time with Roger Ballen knows that the people who populate places like “Boarding House” and “Outland” are truly his friends. He respects their creativity and has empathy for their challenging living situations. He stays in close contact with them by phone, even when he is not working on projects with them. In the video we get a glimpse of his relationship with Stan when we overhear a telephone conversation between the two. He tells Roger, “Ben can’t believe his eyes with all these people around here!” referring to Crossman’s tour of the Outland. The video gives an insiders vision into Ballen’s psychologically charged work, but beyond that the film also brings a sense of humanness to the Outland images and the people within them. Reality and staged set ups intertwine in the video, leaving the viewer uncertain of where the concrete reality ends and fluid collaborative fiction begins.

The Phaidon book features an essay by Elisabeth Sussman, the Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and an introduction by Peter Weiermair, former Director of the Rupertinum Museum in Salzburg and the Galleria d’Arte moderna in Bologna and is available at:



Roger Ballen’s Shadowland 1969 – 2014
19 April until 10 May, 2015
Horikawa Oike Gallery
Kyotographie Photography Festival
Kyoto, Japan

Projections at COMME des GARÇONS Kyoto

Bogotá Photo Festival
Bogotá, Colombia 6:
2 May – 15 June 2015

Galerie Karsten Greve
Köln, Germany
Opening 31 May


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