Five hands. From the series "Asylum of the Birds" © Roger Ballen

Breakthrough, 2008. From the upcoming book ''The Theatre of Apparitions'' © Roger Ballen

Blinded. From the series "Asylum of the Birds" © Roger Ballen

Manifestation, 2007. From the upcoming book ''The Theatre of Apparitions'' © Roger Ballen

Audience. From the series "Asylum of the Birds" © Roger Ballen

Spikey, 2007. From the upcoming book ''The Theatre of Apparitions'' © Roger Ballen

Scream. From the series "Asylum of the Birds" © Roger Ballen

Then and Now, 2007. From the upcoming book ''The Theatre of Apparitions'' © Roger Ballen

Headless. From the series "Asylum of the Birds" © Roger Ballen

The haunting of a Roger Ballen photograph burns into your synapses like the damaged negative of a dream. The interior visions of his sub-conscious mingle in eerie reverie with the narrative of the universes he commands. Once seen, they are not forgotten.The series Asylum of the Birds (2014), orchestrated within the surreality of a house of a Johannesburg suburb and Ballen’s amorphous mindscape, captures the interplay of the animals and people that intermittently inhabit the space, operating and performing within the set design of the photographer’s inception.

Tell us about house in Asylum of the Birds, how did you first find your way there and come to know about it?

I came across it in 2003 or 2004 when I was working on the Shadow Chamber project. Some of the people in the Shadow Chamber building had stayed in the Asylum house and took me there.

What feeling came over you and what were your thoughts when you first entered the asylum house?

I thought it was an amazing place, so interesting that there was animals and people living together in a space that had drawings and different objects around the place. The flying birds - I was absolutely inspired by this place. I definitely knew I wanted to photograph it. I went back there a number of times, before I actually started the project in 2008 and have kept in touch with all the people. In fact one one of the people that I knew well died the other day so I helped them with the funeral. I’ve been involved with them all. 

Going back to the house, do you find it changes, due to the transient nature of its inhabitants?

What you have to realise, and it’s a very super-important point, is that what you see in my photographs is two things; camera reality and Roger Ballen reality. So if you went there and documented the place, it would be an entirely different vision. My vision is very extreme, very unique, very aesthetic in many ways.I’m not a documentary photographer. So you have to look at those pictures as a Roger Ballen aesthetic as much as you have to look at it as a real place. You have to talk about the aesthetic of Roger Ballen. That’s crucial to looking at the pictures, because if you were to live there for the next million years, you wouldn’t create a reality similar to mine. If you made a book out of it, people may not ask the same questions.

How did you find your way with the people in the asylum house? How long did it take for you to build their trust and get their approval?

I can’t work at a place like that for five and a half years and not get along with the people. So the people really like me, I made great friends and I’ve helped a lot of people there. They’ve gotten to know me and like me and respect me. I help them in every possible way and everything worked out fine. Recently, about a year or two ago, I brought some people from Scandinavia there and they crossed the line and got beaten up and lost all their camera equipment. But that didn’t happen to me, they respected me and I respected them and we had a relationship.

What do you think was fundamental to that respect?

It’s always a two-way street, that’s fundamental. You respect people, you don’t cross certain lines and you give them something. They work for me; some carry the camera, some help move things around, some pose, some wash my car. So they make some money here and there and have a job. That was an important thing. I listen to their problems, try to help them out. These people now, their father’s being buried, I’m paying for the funeral. That’s the right thing to do. There’s such a hypocritical belief in photography that you can’t pay the people you work with, but you’re allowed to pay hundred thousand dollars a day for some pretty looking model, and that’s okay.

In a previous conversation with Some/Things, you talked about how you are always asked about the people in your photographs and never the animals. Tell us about the animals.

I don’t know what goes on in people’s heads and I don’t know what goes on in the animal’s heads. Animals are a metaphor in the pictures, so to begin to understand the pictures, one has to understand the archetypal meaning of each animal and the relationship of animals to a so-called Roger Ballen world. The part of understanding the pictures is to understand the metaphoric relationships between the animals and the place. They provide you with some of the insights into the meaning of the work. The meaning is different for everybody, but there are relationships, otherwise the pictures wouldn’t work and otherwise the pictures wouldn’t be art.

Can you explain the relationship between man and animal in this area?

The animals are a part of the asylum. Some animals are a lot more nervous and others are a little more friendly, so some of the birds got a quite tame and are easier to deal with and others not. People aren’t animals and animals aren’t people but there are commonalities, and some of those commonalities come through in the pictures. Some of the ultimate metaphors of people and animals also come through in the pictures. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the relationship between human beings and animals is a peaceful one, it’s not peaceful. You have to be naive to believe that.

How would you describe the relationship of the asylum house to the rest of Johannesburg?

They had apartheid here based on race for many years. In a lot of ways the country hasn’t changed, you have the majority of the people who live in an impoverished situation, living hand to mouth. There are plenty of people here, if you are looking at it from a Western value judgment, who live in more impoverished situations than they do in that movie. People struggle with survival.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just did a show at the Sydney College of Arts, an amazing exhibition that I have there till the 6th of May, called Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Mind. I made an installation in the dungeons below the college which used to house mentally incapacitated people, because the main campus at the Arts School was an insane asylum. I made a video that is going to be released in two weeks, done in different cells in these dungeons.

Are you able to tell of us of any future projects?

I have a big project coming up called ‘The Theatre of Apparitions’ which Thames & Hudson is publishing in September. It’s a very, very interesting project that is very different than anything else I’ve ever done, very different than anything done in photography. They are very powerful pictures that are more like drawings than photography. The pictures feel like they’re pictures of ghosts. They are taken on glass, so I make drawings using paints and epoxies on normal window glass and then photograph these drawings on a black and white film camera.

Asylum of the Birds is currently showing at the James Fuentes Gallery in New York until April 24th.

Special thanks to Roger & Sarie

Interview by Shana Chandra & Pouria Khojastehpay | S/TUDIO
Text by Shana Chandra | S/TUDIO