South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen talks to Curious Animal about nightmares, rap and the dying art of black & white film

Severed heads, genitals, skeletons, birds in flight, ghost-like empty jackets, child-like drawings? The photos in Roger Ballen's latest collection, Asylum Of The Birds, sometimes look like they?ve come straight from horror films or nightmares. ?We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds,? said Franz Kafka, quoted in the opening pages of the book, which maybe says something about Roger Ballen's mind. Born in New York, Ballen's lived in Johannesburg, South Africa since the 1970s, where he's worked as a geologist and mining consultant, as well as a photographer. He's shot in black and white film for 50 years, shifting from traditional documentary pictures to more experimental staged art shots, but mostly with an interest in the strange and freakish, from his early pictures of residents of South Africa's rural villages to the music video he produced with South African band Die Antwoord's song I Fink You Freeky (46 million Youtube hits and counting, see below). In an exclusive interview, Curious Animal spends a little time inside the mind of Roger Ballen.

The pictures in Asylum Of The Birds are on the dark side. Do they come from dreams or nightmares?
I don?t really think too much about whether something is dark or light. I don?t think things that are nightmarish are actually dark. Sometimes nightmares give you a lot of insight.

?I don?t think things that are nightmarish are actually dark. Sometimes nightmares give you a lot of insight.?

Some people might look at these photos and find them disturbing. 
They probably find them disturbing because they haven?t dealt with those aspects of themselves but its okay for them to watch a TV programme and see a hundred people blown up in a shopping centre or to go to a supermarket and see dead meat. That doesn?t bother people either. The pictures are artworks and the inclination is that if they weren?t good artworks, they wouldn?t get in people's heads. It's part of the merit of the artwork that they actually get in people's heads and stay there and transform them. It's being very complimentary about the work if they do disturb people.

Do you like to give people a jolt?
Yes. But in the 50 years I?ve been doing this, I?ve never taken one picture for anybody other than myself. I?m not really thinking about the audience. The audience is made of seven billion. I can?t predict how one out of the seven billion is going to react to my pictures.

We?re bombarded with images every day. How difficult is it to grab and hold people's attention?
It gets easier as you do more and more work. It's like a juggler. You start with two balls and now I?m up to twenty balls. My motto is ?clear form, complex meaning?. Because the pictures have a clear focus, hopefully they drill into your head but have a complexity to them. They?re not like a lot of contemporary art where they try and make something that disturbs people or distracts people. They?re, hopefully, a lot more profound than that.

Does that Kafka quote in the book's intro have any personal meaning to you?  
No. Taking photographs is a science and an art. I?ve been doing this for 50 years now, so you could have a dream or you could think of something in the back of your mind but being able to implement it takes a tremendous amount of experience and concentration and focus in how the subconscious interacts with the conscious mind. It's almost unexplainable. The pictures are made up of thousands of little pieces. It's difficult to say where the pictures start and where they end.

People have made a connection between your mining career and your photos ?mining? the dark parts of the mind. Is there a link?
Yes, you can look at it metaphorically. The appeal of geology is exploration. If you?re doing photography like this, you?re trying to get through the surface to things that were more or less hidden, then trying to manifest that in a coherent visual way. There is a metaphor there, I think.

You?ve said you?re of the last generation that will grow up with black and white film. Does that bother you?
I guess a lot of things bother me but you have to accept a lot of things, you know? It bothers me that people spend most of their time looking at a computer screen, instead of getting out there and interacting in the physical world. When I started photography in the 1960s, the apex of a great photographer was a street photographer, like a Magnum type of photographer who went around the world, wandered around places and interacted in the physical world to come up with pictures. That's a very important thing to do in life, to interact with the physical world. There's nothing like that type of experience to create an outlook or a viewpoint.

Have photographers lost something in the move from film to digital?
Digital pictures don?t have any cost to them. They?re free. And you can play around with them on the computer. There's more and more of this stuff that's becoming more and more a factory of meaningless images. If you use film, it's a much more contemplative business. You have to think about what you?re doing in a more direct way. I wouldn?t say it bothers me. What bothers me is that there's so much stuff out there that people have a hard time separating value from peripheral stuff.

How did the collaboration with Die Antwoord come about?
They were very keen on my work and my aesthetics for many years. We produced, I think, one of the most visually important videos in the last couple of years. It's got, like, 40 million hits and it's had a lot of impact on people. One of the most important reasons for that is that it actually has meaning to it. You look at most stuff and it's meaningless. It's kissing and rubbing and violence ? there's nothing to it, you know? One looks much the same as the other. This work had meaning. It was one of these few times in life when everything came together and it worked.

Yolandi from the band called you ?the weirdest person I?ve ever met in my life. Did you take that as a compliment?
Yes, definitely. I think they said I?m their favourite artist and they compared me to Hieronymus Bosch. I wouldn?t even think about being compared to people like that. I?m not on that level. But they saw me as a guru, in a way.

Even going back to your photos from the early 1990s, like the prison sergeant and the twins (right), it seems you were drawn to the strange.
I do invest a lot in the strange, the nebulous and ambiguous, the peripheral, the marginal? But in a positive way. But I like sitting in the sun and getting a suntan too, you know? I like going swimming and diving in the blue sea. I like looking at a clear sky with a clear moon. I?m not? I don?t like putting these terminologies to anything because they become pretty meaningless. The words don?t necessarily match what the mind sees or what the mind feels. They?re just words after a while. If you actually think of any single thing, it's strange. Everything is strange, you know? What isn?t strange? You look at yourself in the mirror and say ?Is that really me?? Isn?t that strange? Wondering how are you going to put something in your mouth and get a taste. Isn?t that a bit strange? You could look at the sky and watch the clouds move around. Isn?t that strange? Everything's strange.

It's an interesting time for South Africa after the death of Nelson Mandela and elections. What are your hopes for the future of the country?
Nelson Mandela was a very courageous person but there are lots of courageous brave people in the world that never get written about. I don?t think about the future because I can?t predict the future. I can?t predict anything. I?m not a political artist. I?m a psychological one. I geared my life towards dealing with the human condition and the psychological approach. The philosophical, psychological and hopefully poetic approach towards the human condition. The big issues around contemporary politics are really not part of my art. If I can?t go beyond that, I really shouldn?t be an artist, as far as I?m concerned. My art has always been a very personal endeavor. That is my primary goal and not to make reflections on contemporary political situations. I really feel I have to go beyond that.

(source: Curious Animals)