Spending a night in Roger Ballen’s Boarding House is not for the faint of heart. Since the 1970s, Ballen has built his artistic career upon twisted, soul-wrenching photographs that depict South Africa’s pain and poverty through a distorted, dream-like lens and through his new book, named for an abandoned Johannesburg warehouse-turned-impoverished residence he dubs “the boarding house,” Ballen succeeds in revealing yet another side of the human condition. Shot between 2004 and 2008 on location, the book’s 70 black and white photographs of the warehouse’s cave-like sketches, hanging wires, severed doll heads and ghostly models pull the viewer deep into a surreal purgatory, which, according to Ballen, is the product of his mind, reality, and the magic of the camera. Its release coincided with an exhibition of Ballen’s Boarding House photographs at Gagosian Gallery (on view until December 23rd), the book is currently available at Clic Bookstore & Gallery. Below, Ballen talks to Dossier to give us a deeper understanding of the hellish haven he captured on film.
Can you give us a bit of background about the book?
These photographs were taken between 2004 and 2008 in Johannesburg, on the eastern side of the city in a place that I called “the boarding house.” The boarding house building is a building built at the turn of the century to house various objects and equipment from the mines. As one might know, nearly half the world’s production of gold came from the Johannesburg area so there are all sorts of big gold dumps everywhere. The boarding house building is between two big dumps. At some point, I don’t know when it happened, the mine decided to abandon the warehouse and various people came and started to live there and make a life for themselves in this place. And that’s why I called it the boarding house.
How did you stumble upon the building?
I did a book called The Shadow Chamber and the shadow chamber building is quite near the boarding house, so when I was working on that project I found this building.
And why were you attracted to this place?
I don’t really know. Why do you like red more than green? You can’t really explain why. Why do you like peppermint more than spearmint? It’s just a basic premise.
But was there a certain quality about the boarding house that jumped out at you either beforehand or while you were working there?
Well, it was quite an interesting melting pot. It reflected so many aspects of the human condition. People came in and people had this problem or that problem, or this anxiety or that anxiety, sort of the whole debris or the whole human experience was expressed in this place in all sorts of ways. It was like being on the street in Africa somewhere. Just the whole human predicament was there.
Can you speak about your use of symbolism in the book?
I don’t really work with symbolism. I think the pictures have very complex metaphors – metaphors that are really purely visual. It’s really hard to say they’re about one thing or another. I always tell people that you can really get mixed up with words. An easy example is when someone in the morning says, “How are you?” and you say, “I’m fine.” And then you think: “What do I mean by fine? I’ve got a headache, I’m worried about this, my wife’s mad at me, I didn’t like my lunch,” so really, you’re not so fine. It’s the same thing with these pictures. They don’t always mean one thing. And a lot of what they mean can’t be put into words and the words are wrong anyway. I don’t do it out of not wanting to do it, but the one thing I don’t do is talk about the meaning of the work because it’s not about one thing. It can be funny and tragic, so what is it then?
When people view these photographs, where do you hope they go?
I think the purpose of art is to extend people’s consciousness in some way or another. I think sometimes if they get upset about the pictures, it’s probably a very good thing. It’s like going to the gym and being sore after a decent workout. You probably needed it. So if people are disturbed by the pictures, it probably shows that they need to expand their own consciousness. We see so much art and most of it doesn’t move us at all so I think if somebody can remember the pictures or they’re moved by the work, it means that the work is effective as an art form because it’s staying with people. It’s living with people. And that’s what art should be doing. It shouldn’t just be stuck on a wall to tell somebody that you bought a ten million dollar painting. It shouldn’t be to show how smart and wealthy you are. That’s not the purpose of art.
And where did you go when you were shooting these photographs and compiling the book?
I went to the boarding house five or six days a week!
Ok, ok, not literally. Where did you go, in a more figurative sense? Was it difficult for you at all, mentally?
Well, I’ve been at it a long time. I’ve been at this job a long time. I have a way of viewing the world and my way of viewing the world has been opened up and expanded in all sorts of ways, but it’s not something that came to me in the boarding house. It’s not something that sent me completely to the moon because I’ve experienced a lot of these things. I think what I did experience was more in my photography that I was able to take my photography and create a very interesting vision to other people and to myself. I think that was the real challenge, to take what’s in front of you and create a new vision. We’ve all seen endless photographs of poverty in Africa or Harlem or Timbuktu. It’s easy to photograph poverty but it’s harder to take something like that and make a new statement that goes beyond just everything that’s been said before. That’s the real challenge. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I’m not a social political photographer; I’m not interested in poverty at all. I’m not even concerned about that as an issue in my work. It’s not about poverty. That’s the least of the issues. What do you mean by poverty anyway?
The backdrops in the photographs are filled with these eerie, surreal drawings and hanging wires – like something you’d find in Purgatory – is that something you staged? Or was it already there?
Nothing is staged. And nothing is already there. Everything is transformed through the camera. So what you’re looking it is not necessarily what’s there. The thing that’s there is the photograph. You’re seeing a photographic view of reality. Everything is transformed through my mind and through a camera. What you see is the photograph. The photograph, no matter what you do, is staged. You make a decision when and where to pull the trigger. There’s an act of subjectivity in every photograph.
What do you mean by “Nothing is staged. And nothing is already there?” Can you expand on that?
Everything is a product of my mind here. What you’re seeing is a portrayal of a place in my mind. And if you react to it, it’s a place in your mind also. It’s taking physical space, this photography works with light reflecting off of objects, and it transforms the physical work into a two-dimensional image using the laws of photography. And hopefully, if you create good art, the work becomes a place in its own. It becomes its own world.
So this place in your mind, do you visit it often?
I’m always there. I’m there all the time.
Is that exhausting?
No. I’m used to it. It’s like saying to someone who walks around with their fingers, “Is that exhausting?” No. It’s who you are. So you don’t get tired walking around with your fingers, or your ear, for that matter.
So is this book a milestone or just another step in the path?
I would hope it’s both. It’s a milestone. It’s a plateau. And it’s the base camp for the next mountain.
Do you have any musings about what that next mountain might be?
The next project is on birds. I found a building where birds are flying around and the guys don’t let the birds out of the building. They’re not allowed outside. So I’m working in this building. It’s quite an interesting project already. Quite well advanced. There are a lot of interesting metaphors coming out of this place.