South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen got his start documenting impoverished South Africans who had been marginalized by the apartheid government. Soon after Ballen abandoned the documentary style, stopped looking outward and began looking inward. "When you take your eyeballs and you turn them around in your head, things happen," he once told The New York Times magazine.
Ballen's photographs range from staged surreal-scapes to head-on portraits, yet it is impossible to say which is more nightmarish. Dark dreams and darker realities loom above the diverse stages of Ballen's career: from his photographs of shelters littered with cryptic clues to portraits of disturbed strangers. They are all in black-and-white and they all are tangled up somewhere between fact and fiction.
His work makes a similar claim as Francisco de Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," showing the dark forces buried in our subconscious. His works depict the cruelty in children's games, the absurdity in a collection of props arranged a certain way, the awkwardness of posing for a picture. "Who’s telling you what to say? Who’s producing the dreams that come out of the night? There are mysterious third parties that govern our behavior in all sorts of ways," Ballen told Time Magazine.
In appearance Ballen's work resembles Diane Arbus; the two share an obsession with otherness, whether at a freak show or the neighbor's yard. Their hunger for disturbing yet addicting images leads them to unlikely places and faces. We are asked to view people as both banal and grotesque. However, while Arbus' interest lies primarily in appearance, Ballen looks deep into the psyche.
The photograph for which he is most remembered, "Dresie and Casie, Twins," is undoubtably hard to look at. When trying to place the discomfort, we point out their fun-house mirror resemblance, the unsettling gazes, the dangling strings of what appears to be drool. Yet Ballen insists otherwise. According to The Guardian Ballen asserts we feel uncomfortable because "they're your cousins. You're related to them. You are seeing a picture of your insides." This conceptual curiosity set Ballen's work apart from his other taboo-bashing contemporaries.
A collection of Roger Ballen's work from 1969 – 2009 will show at Marta Herford in Herford, Germany is on display until June 17.
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