Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen speaks about Asylum of the Birds

Roger Ballen, Alter Ego, 2010, archival pigment print, 23 5/8 x 23 5/8”. From the series “Asylum of the Birds,” 2010.

Johannesburg-based artist Roger Ballen is well known for his photographic mise-en-scènes of marginal communities. Here, he speaks about his latest publication, Asylum of the Birds, which Thames and Hudson published this month. The book captures scenes in a suburban house outside of Johannesburg, South Africa—images that will be exhibited throughout 2014: at KuK, Aachen, Germany, from May 11 to June 22; at Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-sur-Saône, France, from June 21 to September 21; and at Circa Gallery, Johannesburg, from July 31 to August 20. Ballen also produced a film on this work, which can be viewed here.

YOU HAVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN IN THESE PLACES. You can’t pretend nothing is happening. I found the house where I photographed Asylum of the Birds while I was working on an earlier project, Shadow Chamber, between 2002 and 2003. When I first saw the site, I knew it was unique: an extraordinary environment where people and birds were living together in a claustrophobic arrangement; a place that had an incredible atmosphere—surreal, poetic, and psychological. Its inhabitants included people from various walks of society: Somali refugees, people running from the law, suspected murderers, and insane asylum escapees.

I always call myself an “orderer of visual chaos.” That was my job at the asylum; I transformed one version of reality into “Roger Ballen’s world.” But I never go in and think, “I want to make something happy” or, “I want to make something about people living on the fringe.” I lead all aspects of the production—for instance, I would ask the house’s inhabitants to draw some pictures. It’s collaborative to an extent, but at the end of the day, I’m the horse that pulls the sled.

Now, a good way to get people to work with you is to have them hold an animal, because then they feel that the animal is being photographed and not them. This is the case with Alter Ego. For that image in particular, there was this one guy at the asylum who wasn’t too keen having his picture taken. He always carried a desiccated, somewhat flattened, dead owl with him. I asked him if I could photograph him with the owl, and that seemed to strike something in him. He decided to stand behind a paper mask hanging from the ceiling, gripping a dove in each hand. In this room, the walls were covered in drawings left by other inhabitants. I started taking pictures and at some point, I guess he got bored, and he peered out from behind the mask. For me, there’s this discontinuity when you look at that picture—between his body and the mask—which gives you a shocked sense of dislocation.

When you get older you begin to deal with the act of disappearance, and of dying. It becomes more difficult to say that you know where the end and the beginning of something really is. Some of the parts of my personality have opened up and other parts have disappeared, and when I take photographs I feel as though I’m mirroring this process. Perhaps the only thing I can draw from all this work is that, at the age of sixty-three, I don’t really have any hopes of getting to the end of it.