Behind the Scenes With Roger Ballen: “We Take Some Pictures Soon”

March 12, 2014 | Marina Galperina

Johannesburg’s art photographer Roger Ballen’s new work Asylum of the Birds bares all his usual visual tropes — harsh and flat monochrome, immaculately-posed subjects, childish decorative scrawls, precariously constructed props and… poverty. Also, birds. Ballen is “fascinated with birds.”

This documentary short shot by Ben Jay Crossman (Streets Of Fietas) shows his process in making the series. This involves stepping into the “dangerous” “squatter camps” while narrating it as if he was on a magical journey into his own subconsciousness, a playground of his dreams. It means rousing the sleeping poor people from floors and bathtubs — “We take some pictures soon!” — and posing them inside wire cages and masks, instructing them to hold birds just so. There are some beautiful shots of wildly blinking bird eyes intercut with a close-up of a slum resident popping out a prosthetic eye and of beheaded chickens sprouting blood mid-sprint. And then…

“That needs a drawing,” Ballen tells a slum resident who appears to be familiar with this routine. “Make a face. Make a monkey face…” He scrawls in chalk above another stiff, still man, wrapped in a blanket and cradling a big bird. The drawing is like so many other scrawls in Ballen’s photos, painted in thick lines on the sides of shanty towns and spray painted on the backdrops of a Ballen-directed Die Antwoord video. “That’s much better. Thank you.” So this is how Ballen works… Is it exploitative? Empathetic? Both?