Monika Bielskyte / Dream & reality overlap in your work, & despite the image all being flashed in focus, we still quite feel in the state of not yet being fully awake. The authentic moment is not necessarily the one that is factual but the one that is believed in. Everything seems real & incredible at the same time, something that is part of life yet so rarely achieved by art. Can you tell me more about how do your images happen, about the process?
Roger Ballen / I never start a photograph until i get to the place, i don’t plan a photograph before i go there. It is impossible to plan how things would come together, it is really impossible to predict that moment when the picture works. So i go there & compose the picture, i work with the people, work with the place. It is an interactive process, sometimes i tell somebody what to do, sometimes they do it, sometimes just as i tell them to do it something else happens, we work in a small place. No picture is ever the same & i think it is important to see photography no different than painting – each time with a photograph it is like starting with a new canvas & ultimately the photograph is a product of my own vision, the way i see & the way i compose reality in front of me, like drawing with light rather than drawing with a paintbrush
MB / Can you tell me more about the hitch-hike trip you in your youth?
RB / I have always thought that was one of the most important things i have done in my life, because i have spent 4 & a half years doing this trip across the world, by myself, with very little money at that time. It was in the 70s, there were no cellphones, there were no digital cameras, no computers, the phones didn’t work. There were no phones or phones didn’t work in africa, & if you wanted to make a phone call you may have to wait around the post office for 5 days to get through on a line. So you know it’s a different world in many ways, & i think it left me with a very strong understanding of the human condition, i think it gave me a good understanding of what i thought of humanity, of what humanity was, who i was in terms of humanity, what are humanity’s limits or what is the whole human life cycle about. I was always telling in my mind that experience was the basis of everything that came later, in terms of what i thought about human beings
MB / For years you have worked as a geologist & you still practice it next to your artistic work. What made you decide to take on this profession back in time & what still fascinates you about it to keep doing it when there is no more financial necessity?
RB / When i was younger i always liked being in nature & even today nature for me is the highest level inspiration, probably you don’t feel that much of it among contemporary artists, but for me there has never been any other issue about it. Geology brought me close to nature, i enjoyed that profession & thought it was my challenge to find gold & diamonds, or copper, or coal, i enjoyed being in different places in africa. It was a really enjoyable job because i like being in nature & i enjoy a challenge of finding things, so i thought it really interesting & interactive enviroment, it gave me a good balance with the photography i was doing. I was really lucky to like my career, i was always my own boss, because it enabled me to do photography – i didn’t work for anybody, i had my own time & i could do my own thing. That was a very crucial point for me, that i was actually able to have an independence from other people & do my photography, year after year on my own time
MB / ‘The twirling wires’ is one of the most powerful images i have ever seen. Makes me think of a hurricane, or of a whole world descending upon a man, or maybe rather the world inside us, bigger than our own selves, beauty & terror, something that we cannot comprehend & are never able to put into words. You have written me a bit about the man in that image, that you have photographed him almost immediately after you saw him & that you have learned several weeks later that he was found dead in that very same place. What did you feel then? What does that image mean to you now?
RB / I always say most important images are the ones that i don’t understand, but that reveal something about myself. Twirling wires for me is a very profound image, very powerful image, it’s one of the most important images i ever took. When i look at twirling wires it always gives me something, always says something about my life & always inspires me in some ways, i want to look at that picture because it really achieves something, something that sticks with me, i wish i could take more pictures like that. It has always given me that, so i am never tired of it. A good photograph lives, a good photograph lives beyond the artist, & that is an important thing, & not necessarily my relationship to that person or that place; i think most important thing is the photograph, what is it saying, what is it revealing, that’s the key thing, that it continually gives people the message, wherever they are, over the time, that’s the criteria. Not like that contemporary art idea that you have to read about it before you can understand, in a lot of contemporary art you look at these things & you have no understanding at all what anything is about, so you are supposed to read about them, but when you read about them, it has nothing to do with what you see – that is not my idea about good art.