Six months after the 81st issue of B&W magazine was available in newstands, I got myself a copy of it in a second-had bookstore; apparently attracted by a feature on W. Eugene Smith’s Jazz Loft Project.
Just before the feature story was an interview on Roger Ballen, an American photographer who spent a major part of his life in South Africa. In the interview, Roger explained about his work for the past thirty decades, of which he hadn’t sold a single print until after 1999.
Roger is not a photographer-photographer. He is a scientist, a trained geologist and a mining entrepreneur of which the latter took him to South Africa. He was not formally trained in photography but was likely to have absorbed quite a few things from his mother, Adrienne Ballen, a picture editor at Magnum, whose friends and colleagues included Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
What I find so rare about Roger’s quasi-documentary work is that he has deciphered a code, a visual language out of photography. Far beyond a technician, Roger has evolved beyond knowing and understanding his camera to understanding the message he is sending.
And rather than a wireless network, the messages from Roger’s photographs seem to be in the form of Morse codes, sent through the thousands of cables above and below us. He showed us where his decisive moment was- in a picture of Sgt. De Bruin from the book Platteland, a wire seemed to be hanging the sergeant’s head- through his left and right ear, and a little fragment jolted out on the left side of the frame, disrupting the straight line that the wire supposedly was.
In the interview with B&W magazine, he said: “It is my opinion that the most political transformations are psychological, and that if my photographs transform the minds of the people who view them, then I have altered their political consciousness.”
I had the privilege of meeting Roger when he exhibited his works from Boarding House in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The photographs displayed were ingeniously bold, dark border-lining crazy. There was a man spreading his accordion out on top of a dead chicken whose wings mirror the shape of the musical instrument. Birds seem to come out of the right corners of his frames. So do cats. And dogs.
It is as though Willy Wonka has turned from his chocolate factory into the world of photography.
Roger gave a short talk during the Angkor Photo Festival, which I found the time given a gross injustice to the weight of the things he said. “A good picture has to last. It has to get into your stomach and sticks in there, even before you open your mouth. A lot of photography we see doesn’t stick anywhere, it just goes through your head or through the air, and it goes into vacious space.
"But good photographs gets inside, transforms your mind, your emotions, your identity, and your consciousness. That’s what art should be doing."
Starstruck as I was, I asked Roger how did he make the cats come into the frame just as where he wanted, and he said: “Believe it or not, I also happen to speak the language of cats, not just birds.”
Roger told me he had only worked with his medium-format Rolleiflex since Day 1, and black-and white. He only took photographs in South Africa. In the book Boarding House, all images were made in an apartment block. He didn’t even bring any cameras to Cambodia.
I told him it occurred to me that I had a copy of the B&W magazine that featured him, which he laughed off and said: ” I didn’t know they are still in print!”
More than just brilliance in photographing, Roger taught me the beauty of being far away from the epicenter and the importance of being grounded, humble and creative in digging deeper into issues local to us. There in Johannesburg- not in New York, Paris or London, he does his work, he feeds his family and he photographs.
More than images, he photographs a language that transcends through societies and geographical barriers, and they are spoken as though a loudspeaker is sitting next to you. And that loudness doesn’t seem to go away.