Photographer. Artist. Not a photo journalist. Not a documentary photographer.
After viewing his photographs at the Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town I was glad to emerge into the January sunshine. Truthfully I wanted the world outside to be brighter than sunshine. I wanted one of those days from the World Cup when Holland was playing at the Cape Town Stadium and our city was overrun with orange and gees. But I settled for the sunshine.
Ballen says his work is psychological in nature and his intention with his photographs is to better understand himself. He shoots in black and white. Stark. Uncompromising. Highlighting every shadow and stain, interpreting and transforming reality not mimicking it.
The exhibition starts with photographs from his earlier work (1986 and 1994). Images from marginalised rural communities in South Africa. Images that were considered controversial at the time. They reflect a world that is very far from my reality now and very far from my world during the 1980s and 1990s.
I felt as if I had been drawn back into a post-war world, a war of the 1950s where fashion, settings, cars were different. He captures the personality of his subjects with a clarity that makes it hard to ignore that they are part of marginalised communities.
In his later work, from the mid 1990s onwards Ballen’s goal was to transform the world thought his psyche and create images not record images. In these works his subjects interact with the landscape of their existence in ways that are not always natural. Or are they? I was starting to doubt my own perception of what was real and what wasn’t as I viewed the images.
He incorporates motifs from his earlier work in his photographs – wire, stains, drawings on the wall. They only serve to emphasise the sense of unreality because they link his two different ways of working .
I am disturbed by his photographs because they show a world and an existence that I don’t want to acknowledge. A world that is very far from my world of breakfasts at Kirstenbosch gardens, walks along Sea Point Promenade and a job in the city.
Ballen believes that humanity’s inability to improve its overall situation is a result of people’s inability to come to grips with what they have repressed
I am disturbed by his photographs because they show a shadow world – a shadow world that exists in all of us and yet has real physical manisfestations.
Ballen says ‘it is my opinion that the most political transformations are psychological and that if my photographs transform the psyche of people who view the, then I have altered their political consciousness.
Have I been transformed psychologically? Weeks later I am still disturbed and feel as if my grip on reality has shifted.
His exhibition is on at Iziko National Gallery, Cape Town until 17 April. Go and take a look and see if anything shifts for you.