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Artist explores ambiguities

Artist explores ambiguities

Mimicry by Roger Ballen

Round-up of upcoming events
Exhibition Opening

  • Roger Ballen Boarding House
  • Krzysztof Wladyka Animalies

Venue: McDermott Gallery, Old Market

Time: 6pm

Evening Slideshows

A special showcase by Wang Xi, the festival’s guest curator from China, which will feature the work of 10 photographers from China.

Venue: FCC Angkor

Time: 8.30pm


Evening Slideshows: A showcase of 11 photographers’ work, followed by the announcement of the winner of the inaugural Reminders Project Asian Photographers Grant. A new collaboration between the festival and the Reminders Project, the grant aims to support in-depth documentary work by Asian photographers in Asia.

Venue: FCC Angkor, Pokambor Ave

Time: 8.30pm


Closing Night featuring a talk and slideshow by Roger Ballen, followed by the results of this year’s Angkor Photo Workshops - a free workshop for 30 young Asian photographers. During the event, the winner of the Photo Prize for the best Photo Story from the workshops will be announced.

Venue: FCC Angkor, Pokambor Ave

Time: 8.30pm

The meaning within a photograph often lies as much with the viewer as the photographer, says Roger Ballen. His series of photographs taken inside a derelict building outside Johannesburg are artistic creations, painterly in their form if not their format and, according to Ballen, their meanings are elusive, as they should be, in a manner that is parallel to the ambiguities, opacity, and contradictions that we find in life itself.

Boarding House was produced in 2009, the result of five years spent going back to that bleak building which contained little but the bare necessities of existence for the disenfranchised and lost who lived there.

The complex black and white pictures are largely constructed around the inhabitants of the building, whose gaunt distorted forms are juxtaposed with, sometimes fused with, other elements so that they are not just corrupted but also obscured. The results range from the disturbing to the playful.

“The viewer can’t necessarily find the meaning in the images”, said Ballen. “They’re ambiguous, and their meaning is visual. It’s in the viewer, in their subjective, emotive response to the image.

He rejects any attempt to impose a social meaning on the images based on the stories of its subjects. “The images are only about the visual element. I am not making a documentary.

“Art that’s of value isn’t always definable. You can try, but putting it into a box doesn’t always mean it’s in the correct one. But you can hope that it’s in the best one” said the multi-award winning American photographer.

And it’s not only the viewer who may struggle to search for meaning. For Ballen, his best images are the ones he struggles to understand himself, saying “I think if I really did understand all my work, then I should give up”.

Shooting in film, Ballen adds another layer of complexity to his work. The longer slower process means a more thoughtful process for him. “Film has its own way of processing the event. It’s quite a different experience, more precious and more meditative than digital”, he said. “It results in a change in attitude in the photographer”.

“Taking the picture is really difficult”, said Ballen. “So many different things have to be taken into consideration, all these little aspects. It’s a science as much as an art. But with film, I cannot walk away from the scene”.

A geologist for 30 years, Ballen never studied photography, but developed his artistic sense and his photography skills himself. “It’s a really easy medium to master”, he said, though is less pleased that many people seem to consider themselves a ‘photographer’ these days. “People are creating millions of images every day. I’m an artist photographer, and trying to create lasting, powerful images that depend on a different imagination is incredibly difficult”.

Ballen cites many influences for his work, including the artists of Africa,  and Middle Asia. “It’s an agglomeration of different styles”, he said, “filtered through the camera lens and my own mind, which has its own way of viewing the world”. The images are unflinching in their view, brutal almost, a reflection of one of the influences cited by Ballen, and Weegee, another self-taught photographer whose up-front images have enthralled millions.  

His work is now in the permanent collections of museums all over the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria & Albert in London, and the National Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, a city he first arrived at in 1973 having hitchhiked all the way down from Cairo. He now lives with his wife in Johannesburg.


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