For some artists, just colouring outside the lines isn’t enough. They have to run all the way to the margins in search of the people who live there. Painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was drawn to bohemians and prostitutes; Freaks director Tod Browning, the deformed and disabled; photographer Diane Arbus, the eccentric and creepy.
“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them,” she once explained.
Arbus just as easily could have been talking about Roger Ballen, possibly the most intriguing, disturbing and respected art photographer you’ve never heard of.
An American who has lived in South Africa since the early 1980s, Ballen’s work is the subject of the new exhibition There Is No Outside at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa. Featuring nine photos and three videos, it marks the first time the award-winning Ballen has exhibited here.
“For me it definitely feels like a little bit of a coup,” says SPAO Creative Director Jonathan Hobin. “He’s not a household name, that’s true. He’s not Annie Leibovitz, (Richard) Avedon or someone like that… but of the people who know him, when I mention his name, they are stunned that we are able to get someone like that.”
What lies beneath
Born in New York City in 1950, Ballen picked up his first camera at the age of 13. His first book of photos, Boyhood, was published by the time he was 28. Then, in his early 30s with a newly-minted PhD in Mineral Economics, he left the United States to work as a geologist in South Africa. It was there, while on the job exploring its remote countryside, that Ballen unearthed a hidden strata of white South Africa: a surreal world of profoundly impoverished and deeply damaged people. He took their pictures, always in black and white, and began producing images so unusual, so unsettling, that they repel and beguile all at the same time.
“They’re sort of these weird, dream-like, layered concoctions,” explains Hobin, whose own photos have been displayed alongside Ballen’s twice in shows abroad. “Macabre. Challenging. Grotesque. Sickening. Dark. But at the same time there’s an element of whimsy there. Dark whimsy.”
In time, Ballen evolved from documentary to staged photography. The subjects increasingly turned from people to props such as animals, masks and broken dolls as well as his own spooky, primitive drawings. He also took to making short films, including the nightmarish Outland and South African hip-hop duo Die Antwoord’s 2012 music video for “I Fink U Freeky” (viewed more than 120-million times on Youtube), part of an ongoing collaboration between the group and Ballen.
In fact, if not for that collaboration, Ballen’s exhibition in Ottawa probably wouldn’t have happened. The story of how it did is nearly as unusual as his photos.
At 42 years of age, Orléans resident Sara Seggie is an admitted ‘free spirit’: an interior painter and artist who has backpacked through 30 countries, cultivated an exceptionally luminous wardrobe and home, and lives a life of unrestrained self-expression.
In 2016 she saw the film Chappie by South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. She instantly fell in love with the characters played by Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja (Die Antwoord’s members), the duo’s music as featured in the movie, and the bizarre graffiti Ballen had done for the film.
Seggie was moved to purchase a book of Ballen’s photographs. She loved it so much she picked up the phone and called him in South Africa. She says he was gracious and warm and they spoke for half an hour. They still exchange emails.
“It’s this attraction to the dark and the underbelly,” she says. “The beauty that’s in there and the starkness that’s in there. Roger completely captures that.”
Seggie was so moved by Ballen’s work that she made it her personal mission to ensure his photos would be shown in Ottawa. With his permission, she began a search for a place to do that.
The right call
It wasn’t easy. The National Gallery politely passed. Other galleries also said no. Finally, Seggie called the SPAO, then located in the ByWard Market, and talked to Jonathan Hobin. He still remembers the call.
“She referred to him as Roger and I didn’t think anything of it and then she mentioned that she’d been in touch with the National Gallery and there was not a space available and as soon as she said National Gallery and Roger, I said ‘Are you talking about Roger Ballen?’, and she said ‘Oh my goodness, you’ve heard of him’ and I said ‘Yes, absolutely’… I said ‘Well this totally changes what we’re talking about’.”
“For me it definitely feels like a little bit of a coup.” –Jonathan Hobin, SPAO Creative Director
Hobin waited until the SPAO’s new home and gallery space in Little Italy were ready. Then, this summer, after Ballen sent the photos from South Africa (he was unable to come to Canada for the show), Seggie’s dream came true.
“I feel fantastic about that. It makes me feel like a little spark. That’s a really wonderful feeling and at the end of the day what it did was bring the vibe of Roger Ballen, his artwork into a different space… that’s really cool. Just to be a connector is fantastic.”
Now audiences here can jump into the debate about Ballen’s work: is it thrilling or repulsive; collaborative or voyeuristic; compassionate or exploitive?
“Whether it serves a bigger picture, whether it helps us as a society move forward, I don’t know and I don’t care,” observes Hobin. “I just think it’s beautiful work. I think it challenges people, people want to say something about it…it all is interesting, fascinating and I think that’s what artwork should be all about.”
Sara Seggie too remains captivated by Ballen’s relentless journey into the shadows. True to Diane Arbus’s maxim, his photographs reveal hidden worlds, including the ones in his own mind. But more than that, she feels his camera isn’t simply a window. It is also a mirror.
“He’s able to see that the world around him reflects himself; that this dirt and grime and confusion and brokenness that you can find in the underbelly of any city is inside each of us as well and if you connect to it, you’re connected to yourself. I think it’s really interesting to explore the potentially creepy sides of yourself without having any self-hatred or self-loathing. They’re just weird, dark parts of you.”
Roger Ballen: There Is No Outside continues at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (77 Pamilla Street) until September 23, 2018. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm–5pm, or by chance. Admission is free.