In 2012, Die Antwoord's 'I FINK U FREEKY' video stopped the creative world momentarily in its tracks. It was the kind of video that started with a whispered success, probably because nobody really knew how to describe it, then grew into something you'd crowd around your computer with your friends to watch.
The surreal and visceral content of the video went on to epitomise Die Antwoord's visual style - one that came to the public's attention for their 'Enter The Ninja' and 'Evil Boy' videos.
The man behind these videos, Roger Ballen, wasn't a stranger to making people feel slightly uncomfortable. Up until this point, Ballen had spent his career as a photographer taking pictures of such nightmarish realities that it took some time for his work to be embraced beyond a small core of followers. The initial reaction was that his work was exploitative - especially because a lot of his subjects suffered mental and physical health issues.
After Apartheid, the focus of the world's lens was on the cruel injustice perpetuated by the minority white South African's and the reconciliation between all of the racial groups. One of the least documented aspects of the country's redevelopment was the isolated and impoverished white communities in village's spread throughout the country.
When Ballen went to visit - what he saw was deeply disturbing. Swathes of people had been left behind in faceless rural areas as the country was beginning to find its feet in the more major cities - the resulting work ended up as a deep psychological insight into the human psyche at its most raw and unguarded.
The influence of Diane Arbus on his work is clear. Ballen thoroughly believes that a good photograph doesn't need words to accompany or conceptualise it, the merit of the photograph should stand on it's own. It's this intensity of capturing a moment that makes Arbus and Ballen tower over their contemporaries in documentary photography. Their uncompromising portraits of marginalised people have given us a glimpse into societies that we wouldn't have previously known existed.
One theme that cannot be overlooked in Ballen's work is that of inherent vulnerability. In his 2001 collection, Outland, the privileges that were offered to the white rural communities through Apartheid are no more. The result was that many people were left abandoned - seemingly unable to catch up with a rapidly changing world. Captured on their own terms, in their bedrooms or their dilapidated surroundings, his photographs put you in a position so intimate with the subjects that it's impossible to ignore them.
It raises the important question - what better way to make people notice a neglected segment in society than to force them into looking them in the eye?
In the same way as Francis Bacon deconstructed his subjects with a centrifugal force, separating the superfluous that was systematically dumped, to include only the most disturbing facets of their nature - Ballen does much the same. It's not only the way he captures the image though, but through a career of shooting solely in black and white, the pictures seem more like a nightmarish trip than reality. They reveal to us something deeper than flesh.
When the subjects aren't being documented, they are depicted in a tableaux of surrealistic poses with their real life props, shot in a way that is as heartbreaking as it is uncomfortable, "One is forced to wonder whether they are exploited victims, colluding directly in their own ridicule, or newly empowered and active participants within the drama of their representation." So reads his official 'About'.
The idea of exploitation runs deep through his work, a thread that adds to the discomfort we feel, partly because we become complicit in viewing the images and partly because the subjects seem so willing to take part in their own exploitation. Ballen himself is adamant that there is no exploitation and that the characters are his friends and that they even 'love' him. It also makes one consider the question of whether he can be exploiting them any more harmfully that by the hands of their own dysfunctional government.
His photography raises many questions, which is why it is 'good' art - although not all of the questions pertain to the content necessarily, but also to his process. His documentary work was heavily criticised, yet his work that was more clearly staged was met with universal acclaim. It seems almost ironic then that the exploitation occurs in the accurate representation and not in the set-up - a haunting reminder of our expectations of 'media'.
His work has continued to move towards the conceptual, losing almost all of the faces that branded it into the minds of his earliest fans. A more recent collection, The Theatre of Apparitions, takes a more abstract approach to the relationship between human and beast.
while his documentary style photography looked at animalistic and less domesticated forms of human behaviour - The Theatre of Apparitions dissolves form further until the subjects resemble Rorschach blot tests. This hallucinatory collection taps into shamanistic visions and spirituality, something Ballen believes is deep within us all.
The change in style comes with his own psychological development, attaining a complexity he believes would have been impossible when he was younger. The new series deals with the habit of the mind to repress desire and is a step towards further abstraction for Bellen, hinting at exciting prospects for the future. As his images have become more sparse throughout the years, the psychological power has become more acute. He has always been a challenging artist to fully embrace, but with this collection, like the subjects of old - he's throwing himself into our face and it's still too hard to look away.
More like this:
Please, check your email.