Posted by: Issha Marie | April 15, 2009

Inside the Boarding House: Roger Ballen delivers a talk at the OCAD auditorium

Date: Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Location: the OCAD auditorium

portrait of Roger Ballen (taken by Paul Ballen)

portrait of Roger Ballen (taken by Paul Ballen)

True to how I imagined him to be, Roger Ballen is as every bit as quirky and enigmatic as his photographs. His lecture at the OCAD auditorium was simultaneously vague and informative; vague, in that his lecture perpetuated even more questions from his audience; and informative, in the feeling that the veil of enigma surrounding these places has somewhat been lifted.

His stories are surreal.

Before my starry-eyed self stood a man obsessed with connections. Whether or not this is reflective of a general belief in the interconnectedness that exists within the known universe I may never know; but one thing is for certain: I left the lecture with an even deeper sense of awe for the man.

“Memory, like photography, is not exactly an objective way of remembering the past…”

Listening to his lecture was akin to being drawn into a good and gripping ghost story. These ghost stories, however, are far from fiction. I was suddenly transported into a place that exists only in my wildest nightmares, deep into a world where Pandora’s monsters have materialized into their very tangible counterparts and now roam about unabashedly. And so it would seem that the boarding house[*] Ballen so bravely ventured into has become iconic within the small South African community where he’s spent a good chunk of his career documenting. It is a place where criminals seek refuge, where scandal and injustice run rampant, where mystics, witch doctors, and spirits fill every known and undiscovered crevice. The results of his photographic journey have rendered visuals that come at you at all angles with these well-iterated philosophical questions: Where are we? Who are we?

Ballen accompanies every photograph with a true-to-life ghost story or tragedy; else, he points out various forms within the picture that relate to each other. Furthermore, these relational forms appear as though they were generated by some dark and serendipitous force of fate. Of course, Ballen could just have a knack for capturing these odd moments on film, but my mind is already set on the possibility that Ballen has been commissioned to do these photographs by the devil himself.

Or not.

Ballen explains that photographs are not necessarily a duplication of reality; rather, photographs are really just experiments in seeing and perceiving. To take a photograph is to showcase the ability to perceive visual stimuli through the lens of a camera. His photographs are neither real nor unreal, simply because he believes the notion behind “reality” is based on its propensity to change constantly:

“I don’t really know what’s real, do you? […] It is not staged – it is all about seeing. Nothing is ever the same, and we can do nothing to control that. You look up from your camera and everything has changed. 1/500th of a second later, and everything is different.”

When you get right down to the meat of the matter, Ballen’s Boarding House is all about the human condition. The animals and the drawings that pervade these odd spaces provide profound evidence of instinct, survival, and tensions [that arise between certain relationships] at play:

“I think good art has to contemplate the human condition. (Though, if I can do one thing with the word ‘art’, it will be to throw it in the trash, burn it, and invent ten or twenty different words to describe the visual experience). […]

Being in a place like the boarding house tells you a lot about the human condition. Watching TV does not.”

Pathos (c) Roger Ballen, 2005; i: For Ballen, pathos is the ultimate representation of the human condition, as it defines internal pain.; ii: The people who resided within the boarding house refused to move this stuffed ape, for fear that if touched, bad luck will instantly come upon the disturber.

Pathos (c) Roger Ballen, 2005; i: For Ballen, 'pathos' is the ultimate representation of the human condition, as it defines internal pain.; ii: The people who resided within the boarding house refused to move this stuffed ape, for fear that if touched, bad luck will instantly come upon the disturber.

Fragments (c) Roger Ballen, 2005

Fragments (c) Roger Ballen, 2005

I suppose it’s only fitting that he ends the lecture with Fragments. Admit it: while you find the photograph unsettling, you also find yourself torn between thinking this is real and thinking this is staged. Well, it isn’t – staged that is. Moreover, Ballen finishes off the lecture quite matter-of-factly: “He committed suicide.”

Fret not, for there is light at the end of the dark abyss. “Many people say these photographs are dark, and in essence, I suppose they are. But perhaps one has to understand the dark, before one can understand the light.”

[*] Fittingly enough, the Boarding House is located 2-3 kilometres away from the Shadow Chamber building. These buildings are separated by a series of rough and broken terrain; yet again, another fitting description, as the words “road to hell” immediately came into my mind.

Related Posts:

  • Journey to the shadow world: Roger Ballen at the OCAD Professional Gallery
  • All source photographs, unless otherwise specified, were taken from Roger Ballen’s official site: flattened to fit paper assumes no financial gain from these photographic sources, and has restricted these photographs for illustrative and exemplary purposes only. Visit the OCAD Professional Gallery for more information on Boarding House.


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