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Roger Ballen

Boarding House

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“It is difficult to explain this place except that I think it exists in some way or another in most people’s mind.” –Roger Ballen

These photographs are like images from a waking dream: compelling and thought-provoking, with layers of rich details, flashes of dark humor, and an altered sense of place. Blurring the boundaries between documentary photography and art, my work is both a social statement and a complex psychological study.

BOARDING HOUSE is a space of transient residence, of comings and goings, of people sheltered in a place they are using for their immediate survival. Basic and fundamental, the structure is furnished with objects necessary for an elementary existence, decorated with evocative drawings, and littered throughout with animals. Remnants function there as physical symbols of events that have occurred in the space; broken pieces of a functional reality exist as the leftovers of scenarios that have been played out there. The altered sense of place of this temporary abode creates a sense of alienation, which acts as a jumping off point for the imagination to run wild.



Roger Ballen was born in New York in 1950. Since 1982 he has been living and taking photographs in South Africa.

His work is represented in many museums including Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ballen’s work has been recently exhibited in numerous museums in Europe and the United States.


Related links

Roger Ballen


Editor’s note:

Comments are open on this essay… If you have any questions, feel free to ask Roger, he will be jumping in on the comments soon…It is with great pleasure that I present Roger Ballen on Burn…

… david alan harvey

280 thoughts on “roger ballen – boarding house”

  1. “a jumping off point for the imagination to run wild…”

    Indeed… curious, disturbing, some of these pictures made me shudder – others made me smile. Very rich – it will take some time for these images to work through my sub-conscious…

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  4. ALL

    Roger Ballen himself will be reading the comments for any questions you might have…

    We’ve waived the one comment rule for this essay, so feel free to ask Roger a question…

    Over the next few days he will be jumping in from time to time, this should prove very interesting…

    I for one am looking forward to it….



  5. I love 13, also like 21 and 25 quite a lot. FWIW, I was a bit put off by the opening of the photographer’s statement which reads like a PR blurb excerpted from a third-party review. I kind of don’t like being told by the artist that his work is compelling and thought-provoking. But I enjoyed much of it nevertheless. Glad to see it here.


    Roger, given my earlier comment i would like to ask..


    and more importantly..

    WHY IS IT HERE????


  7. Roger – how great to have you here on burn.

    I’m a self-taught photographer, and your images are among those that comprised my early education. Platteland was out around the time of my own creative emergence, a time when I was most hungry to see work that effectively externalized and manifested the inner awareness. I can remember running my hands over the pages of your book, trying to garner the treatment of surface and light and line to understand how they played into the psychological texture of the map of psyche, thinking if I could process your world from outside-in I could probably process mine from inside-out.

    There are many things I think your way of working taught me – among them, that discipline and obsession and persistence and working beyond audience are important, that being able to ‘use’ the outside world as an integral part of the medium is basic, that one must understand one’s own way of seeing if any significant unearthing of the self is going to be communicated successfully.

    The specific elements in your language are neither alluring nor frightening to me; it is your grammar that excites…I think you and experience the world very differently, where you seem to be drawing with rough forces of entropy, I know peace and hope to lift the veil from the illusion of separateness… (please tell me you love the creatures and they collaborate with you without pain, that they are rewarded for their performances)…but that we experience the human/earth condition differently makes you no less my teacher, maybe in part it has helped me to understand myself more.

    thank you…

    Erica McDonald

  8. “How he is curious, to the limits of his understanding; how he attempts to approach what arouses his curiosity, to th elimits of his motion; how confident he is, to the limits of his knowledge; how masterfrul he is, to the limits of his competence; how he derives satisfaction from another face before him, to the limits of his attention; how he asserts his needs, to the limits of his force.”
    — ‘Within his limits’ from the story “What You Learn About the Baby”–Lydia Davis


    welcome aboard.

    As with Erica, my wife and i too have been entranced by and nudged ourselves along the course of your life-work’s constellation since we first saw and essay of yours prior to the publication of “Fact or Fiction”: ironically just before our own marriage almost seven years ago…then when “Shadow Chamber” was published, the work became a began, if not for our own work (which too deals with navigating the internal along the switchback life of what lay before our eyes and experience) than for a small, simple notion: that one must simply remain true to the tact and tangle of that story which seems to carve out the inside our our lives when met with the tug of what lay out.

    Ironically, I originally was juiced about your work as a painter, the scribble and crawl and dusty and detritus of Twombly’s word-scribbling and Beuys chalkboard-songs, the dry ink of chinese scrolls and the thumbprint of our own sons country-clipping singing, pasted to our walls and refridgerators. later, so much came adrift and untangled: the gorgeous late work of Giaciomelli and his wearing dream-songs, the family naming of Meatyard and his country of homes and masks and family ghosts, Camus’ sisyphus, Celan’s tight and cloistered poems, the music of Glass, all of which is about duration, obdurate duration of the hum of the heart. That is how your work has worked it’s magic…

    Again, what both of us have charished so much about your work and why it is such a plesure to see it here is because of a small, bright thing: the duration and the hem. that each person wakes into this world and begins to take a walkabout humming and hauling along a very specific notion: that they are clicked and clacked by the contact, the song that rises up from inside their life, that like a shadow on the wall that moves, when attempted to be grabbed, from the wall onto the back of your hand. All too often, it seems to me, that photographers (maybe all folk of all walks of life) wish too much to either emulate or pursue that thing which seemed to haunt another rather than to harness their own syntax and grammar, their own clutching to that which gives rise to their own dark and enchanted life: see the ring before you. To find that way, that inimitable way that one needs to best speak of that which requires speaking. It is never about the specifics of the now, never about the specifics of what othersare doing, but about the varienty and variance and vegrities of that which haunt you, haunt each person, then all begins to swell….

    what can be gained from your work, actually the entirety of the work, is the commitment, sometimes burdensome, sometimes lonely, always necessary, of plowing the that soil and dust that lay as the ground of one’s 4-chamber life: that which calls. That that, demonstrably, links work to others and makes it sing. That work isn’t at all about an essay, or at all about a specific moment in time, but is in fact about one’s life work, one’s breathing, what wratches and wrecks and relieves, over the course.

    It is a great pleasure to see your work here. Not so much because we see the Ballen essay now (i know this book already from Christmas time ;)) but because again it acts, here at Burn as an example:

    to clash and crush and care work, to put icons (yea, Roger, it may be squeemish but you, or at least your work has become iconic) along side unknowns and emerging and toilers of the dark. It is democratic and what I have always like…to put big names next to unknown names…to make it the work that enriches and not the contacts nor the names. It’s a real pleasure to see this here….

    I also think that Roger’s life, his work ethic and life, should serve, just as Giacomelli’s did, as an example of what matters what carves out sustainable and inspired/ing work: not immediacy,not fame, but long-haul chewing upon things….

    I wish more young photographers, more people in general understood that.

    thank you so much for sharing your work and most importantly yourself with burn and the audience:

    only 1 question: if you are ever in Toronto, would you like to come over for tea and cognac? :))))

    thanks so much
    all the best


  9. I’ve always shied away from Ballen’s work because I’m not sure I’m really ready to look. But today I looked, and it wasn’t as disturbing as I expected. I think his statement really gave me an entry point (though I, like a previous commenter, also reacted to being told the work is compelling and thought-provoking – I prefer to come to those conclusions on my own).

    I’d like to know how much, if anything, his work has to do with South Africa? Would he make these kinds of pictures no matter where he lives or is there something distinctly South African about them?

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  11. The pictures are amazing. Dark, clever, and humorous; at times, chilling, other times, warming.

    Knowing how quick kittens are to dig with their claws, I worry a little bit for the future pleasure and posterity of the gentleman in frame 14.

  12. Hi Roger:

    quick follow up to my overly long post :))….

    the 1st question (tea and cognac) still stands, but here’s a quick 2 more:

    1) love dubuffet alot and he’s also one of the artists with whom i associate your work (besides the others i mentioned, so could you speak about other artists (they dont have to be photographers, but painters/writers/musicians/barbers) who you dig, not necessarily inspired by?

    2) how did you learn about Burn?

    3) since doubt is a part of each of our lives and inhabits all our work, could you speak a bit about doubt, your own artistic doubt. your work as formidable visual strength and your practice has shown a dedication of pursuit (even in anonymity), so how has, if any, the role of doubt/second guessing yourself helped to hone your voice and visual expression…

    thanks again
    all the best

  13. No words. These photos, this work, Roger’s vision leave no place for words in my head. My reaction is cellular not verbal. I experienced a variation of this essay on Lens blog in November and have been mulling it over ever since. But I didn’t know until now that it was careening around my imagination, asking questions, destroying assumptions, influencing my dreams. I am left breathless after seeing this edit several times and then going back to watch the Lens edit again. If you go there, be sure to turn on your sound because Roger narrates it.


    How does an individual let his rational mind go into these mysterious places and create art like this? Hell, I’ve been an artist for 35 years and am in awe of such an original vision as Roger’s. God, man, how do you do it???


  14. JOHN GLADDY ..

    you asked the same thing of Nachtwey essay.. wish I could figure out why you asked that question twice now…honestly..why would’t both photographers be here on Burn? you lost me on that one amigo

    cheers, david

  15. BOB..

    Lassal wrote to Roger ..Roger wrote to me.. I wrote back to Roger… By telephone we decided what would be best to publish here on Burn…At that point Roger also agreed to come in and comment which he will do…

    cheers, david

  16. well seen, consistently seen… for me brings to mind basquiat and clarence john laughlin and arthur tress and joel peter witkin and ralph eugene meatyard, a melange of the odd, dark and self-conscious. not my cup o’ tea but the art world has voted and i say: all power to you Mr. Ballen!

    … rog video’d here, very briefly — he says he doesn’t like looking at photos on a computer screen — who knew? – http://photoblips.dailyradar.com/video/roger-ballen-talks-about-photobooks/

    and another, longer vid: http://vimeows.com/7543438

  17. DAvid! :)))

    was actually going to call u today….dont know why, just thought i should (feeling this morning on the subway) and then i thought look at burn…open up, smiled big :)))…u know i dreamed about it last night (told marina)…and yet, i had no idea….weird, but absolutely true…i had a dream ballen would be on burn, no idea why…but…

    anyway, great for St. Lassal….great for u….great for all of us too….

    hope my 1st comment wasnt too long, but what is bob black to do ;)))

    marina is also happy and will write something later in the weekend…now, we’re off for our friday night date…

    happy to read his responds, will be lovely…

    check ur email..an idea as a gift,


    marina linked to the lens culture interview before she left for russia. happy that some had a chance to listen…it is great,indeed

  18. roger,

    I had the privilege of seeing your work in the “flesh” in your show at the Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne. Seeing it on screen now on further reminds me of how much more powerfull and raw it was in print. Nevertheless, wonderful to see more work.

    The connection in these images to primal man comes through so strongly for me, and i also found that when looking at pieces from “Platteland”. A lot of people find your work incredibly hard to look at which I find interesting as your work is so human. The crowd at the gallery when I went to see your work seemed to linger in the room with images from “Platteland”, and seemed almost hesitant to enter the room the held “Boarding house”. How do you feel about people’s reaction to this work? I have my own suspicions as to why your later work seems harder for people to swallow but would love to hear your opinion.

  19. Roger,

    What are you after? You seem to be creating retro-multimedia with the imagery
    before it is retro. Just a word and give it meaning?

    Thanks for sharing.


  20. I’m relishing the thought that Jim Powers watched this and lost his mind. (temporarily)

    I’m blown away. It’s difficult to watch at “click speed,” because each individual image is an essay in itself. Probably better to have a book…

    My favorites are the most intensively conceived images that are clearly (almost clearly) fiction. Those I can look at as art. The pictures that could be real give me a nagging feeling: somewhere between “this feels staged” and “this feels voyeuristic.”

    Fine art photography or documentary voyeurism; but this tension is actually present in most of the work here, though not usually in the foreground like this.

  21. Okay, I’m embarrassed. I’ve never seen Roger Ballen’s work before, and I assumed it was staged. After some quick research, I’ve learned it’s not staged (except in his mind). First, I’m all for that (staging photos in the mind, which is what photographer’s do). I’m even more amazed that such intensely expressive, complex images were composed without staging them.

    On the other hand, if they’re not staged, then I think these are some of the most uncomfortably personal photos I’ve seen on Burn. Having lived and worked among the poor, I find it difficult to reconcile my admiration for pictures like this with the fact that real people have been used to express someone’s vision. I don’t know why I’m taken aback by these, and not by Diane Arbus’ work. Maybe because Arbus’ subjects always seemed so aware of the camera, and the pictures were about them. The people in these photos are both people and objects.

    Still, if I could take pictures like this, I would… Still thinking about the book…

  22. Andrew – from RB’s website, written by Robert Cook
    Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia

    “Since the late 1990s Ballen has been working at intensifying this core of his practice. For instance, his often curiously unique subjects now perform with and for him to create images that are in all ways true theatrical partnerships. He has also worked on the environments themselves, responding to drawings on the wall and clusters of objects that become antic sculptural formations as we find an unfathomable blurring of fact and fiction.”


    with respect back to you my friend, i am sure Roger will answer your question…i was not answering for Roger of course, but this is a public forum…i was not answering the question anyway, but curious why you asking it…even if he answers you clearly, your reason for asking it to both Roger and James will always be a mystery to me…the “tone” in both cases seemed condescending, but maybe i read it wrong…in any case, we all look at responses and comment on them all the time…including ones directed to a specific person….don’t i get to play? as you, i will look forward to the response of Roger…


    i have thanked Lassal personally for helping make this happen and i thank her again right now…Lassal is quite the motivated woman and i tell her whenever we chat how much i appreciate her efforts all around…

    wish you had called…doing my expenses instead…bored….i am in my 9th hour of an 11 hour layover in Charlotte a city where you have some history i know…..had to get out of DC before they shut down because of snow, so took an early flight down…

    cheers, david

  24. Holy Shit! A Roger Ballen , Imants , Nachtwey three way , better put some colour in quick or they will start to take BURN seriously ( smiling) .
    Thank you Lassall! Thank you Roger!

  25. hey David. Never condescending. What position do I have to be condescending from? I hope you know that I have total respect and admiration for you and what you are doing here…..but sometimes i need to throw a curve ball out there and see if it hits anything, its in my natur, and I stand by it 100%.
    And as for “dont I get to play?”…..you play as hard as just about anyone i’ve met :))

    Hope you get to rio soon


  26. I am very happy to see Roger Ballen’s work. I discovered your work I believe here on burn, somebody had posted a link (Erica maybe?) and since you are one of my favourite photographers. I wait impatiently your new work !

    kind regards, audrey

  27. This essay is like an awkward dream for me. I have great respect for your work, Roger. I can’t enjoy these images too much because they make me feel uncomfortable … like a dream that is beautiful but too weird to return to …

  28. mr. ballen,
    my apologies. i am a non photographer.
    how did you start… at the beginning of your career? did you always shoot this way?
    did you think this was your niche? thought provoking pictures?
    what did you shoot when the world started noticing you?

  29. That’s certainly interesting work. High art, for sure. This is the first time I’ve seen your work, Roger, knowingly anyway. I’ve seen the image of the toe-headed twins from Platteland somewhere.

    I’ll second John Gladdy’s question asking where you see these photos in relation to your body of work. Seems to me, and this may be shallow since I’ve done little more than glance at a tiny part of your body of work, that you were very much influenced by small town and rural life. Are you from a farm or small town or did you travel to these places, seeing them as an outsider? It also seems that your later work, the spontaneous or such theater in Outland, Shadow Chamber, and Boarding House, is very much an amalgamation of and growth out of your visual ideas in Platteland and Dorps. In fact, it seems like that can be said about each new work. Seen as a progression, it’s like you moved from the country, to a small town, to the city. The growth on top of previously realized ideas appears evident. I don’t go so far as John to suggest that you’re going through the motions in the more recent work. I see that the motions are becoming ever more precise. But I am curious where you see opportunity for future growth? Outland, Shadow Chamber, and Boarding House do seem very similar. Do you have any concern that the fields you’ve plowed so long will become infertile? Or can you continue to refine the same, or at least similar, vision indefinitely?

    That last question, I see, kind of assumes that it is all about artistic vision. Is that accurate or is there a commercial aspect as well? Having found something that sells, is there pressure, or is it even a small consideration, to do more of the similar? Or is your vision so overwhelming that you can’t really consider doing anything else?

    I hope those questions aren’t out of line, I certainly don’t mean them to be so. This reminds me of J School when we were required to ask at least one question of every guest speaker. It started out as a duty, but after learning a bit more about the guest, I always found I was genuinely interested in the answers.

  30. Michael there is a path to every journey as it refines and ever expands into new horizons, crawling slowly through the undergrowth and then the wind comes up…….

  31. Profondo Rosso by Dario Argento comes to my mind.. the things you see without noticing.. but here I have to look and see them, one frame after the other, am confronted with it without being able to skip, hide or forget..

  32. Nightmarish, bare bulb basement serial killer imagery. My first and last viewing of Roger’s work was Spring 2009 at OCAD in Toronto. His signature look is immediately recognizable. I’m gobsmacked and awe-struck by the texture and content.

    In series, the fore, middle and background composing style begins to feel formulaic. For me, square format composition is better served through the intersection – not overlapping – of planes. If Ballen could add that to the mix my admiration for his work, already in the clouds, would be stratospheric.

  33. DAVID: :)

    yes, i should have called, was going to and then thought you’re schedule would be full on way to Rio….will call u upon your return….and remember, if u need additional contacts in Rio (5 weeks is long), write me and will hook u with Miriam and Sergio….they’ll also open alot of doors…plus provide good conversation/wine….

    and also, i loved that Imant’s book/essay was juxtaposed with Roger’s book….i think it adds contextual resonance with imant’s accordian books, something i love here at burn….marrying and contrasting is a good way for people to see the strength of work they may not have at first recognized…

    running, work to do for the weekend…


  34. Thank you for comments. Over the coming days I will respond to many of the probing questions that you have asked me.


    Roger Ballen

  35. Thankyou Patricia fot the links. Very helpful.

    I’m torn by this stuff. One one hand I’m drawn to it. Morbid fascination. No question it is unique and important. I’m also uncomfortable with the fact that we are clearly looking at art derived by photographing marginalised people, some who would appear to have serious mental health issues.

    This work fits in with my mental image of South Africa, a decaying, chaotic, bizzare, out of control place.

    One thing that makes me curious is why are you there Roger.

    I must take you to task on something you said in the interview from the link above regarding your technique. You said something like how you wanted to have a lot of depth of field because that is how our eyes work, no selective focus.

    Now choose whatever technique you like, but it has nothing to do with how our eyes work. How our eyes and brain view the world is completely un-like any camera technique.

    Fix your eyes on something , note that unless you re-focus your eyes, all is blurry except what you focus your attention on. This in fact is one of the biggest differences between how cameras see and how we see. If we have to make a photo/eyeball analogy, our vision is full colour, (and the higher the light level, the more saturated we percieve the colour), 3d, unless you close one eye, and an almost fish-eye 180 degree field of view, but sharp only in the very center. Then of course, everything is moving.

    I’m in agreement with those who like your earlier work more.

  36. All I can say right now is that I find Ballen’s images difficult to look at. Very disturbing. The roller coaster ride in my head gets pretty wild.
    Not sure if I understand it correctly, but boarding houses were many times the places where kids were badly treated by teachers. Many Native Canadian Indians were put in boarding schools and still suffer from abuse and a traumatic childhood. Is that what you are after?
    At the f-stop festival in Leipzig last year I sat with friends and I heared the name of Roger Ballen for the first time. I remember that later I looked up his work on the internet and I was irritated and had no idea what to think of it. The images looked bewildering to me.
    Still, I appreaciate Roger Ballen’s work very much, because I feel there is a lot of thought behind the images. It is a great honour for burn to have his images published here!
    Never mind my lack of understanding. So I would like to ask Mr Ballen:
    How do you come to the idea for this series of images?
    What are your reflections before you start taking the picture?
    Thank you.

  37. BOB..

    pleased you noticed the juxtaposition….

    we will talk upon my return , but would appreciate by email and contacts you may have…i may or may not have time to contact, but all possibilities appreciated…

    cheers, david

  38. Hi Roger. This is very enjoyable. But i can only watch a few minutes as my net connection in india is costing rupees so if its unsettling, I haven’t quite arrived at those pictures. It’s so painterly. Who are your favourite painters? Are you a frustrated painter? If you were, you probably are no longer. I think what you’ve done is a great example to add to the canon of the combined history of photography and painting.

  39. To Andrea:

    There has always been an aspect of the painter inside me; it took years to find a way to express this media through photography. There are hundreds of painters that I admire from Cave drawings to Goya to Dubuffet.

    To John Gladdy:

    The Boarding House series adds a greater sense of complexity to the my body of work. I am not sure why it is there except that it is there.

    To Bob Black:

    I cannot wait to have a cognac with you in Toronto especially if the temperature is less than zero.
    There certain is an aspect of Art Brut in these images. The are endless painters and photographers who I admire; it is almost impossible to name some without forgetting others.

    I do not spend time doubting my artistic endeavors; I believe that hard work is the key to banishing doubt.

    To: Kate Wilhelm

    The photographs were taken in a very unique place in South Africa that I refer to as the Boarding House. Nevertheless; ultimately the Boarding House is best defined as an agglomeration of the photographs that I have integrated into a book. I am quite certain that nobody else could create the same essence as I have.

    To MnM:

    This recent work is more complex than my earlier work and consequently confuses people. It crosses a very subtle line between photography and art.

    To Pomara:

    I am not certain what I am after. What are you after?

    To Reimar

    The idea came to me in the place and word Boarding House.

    To: Imants:

    My dog liked visiting the Boarding House with me as there were bones everywhere to chew.

    To Michael Webster:

    What will you do if you run out of dreams???

    I am not a commercial photographer and never want to be.

    To Gracie.

    I started taking photographs when I was five and never stopped and hopefully never will.

  40. Roger :))

    thank you so much for the reply. :)…yes, alas, it is still below zero.

    what i have always loved about Art Brut (and specifically about Dubuffet) is the physicality, rather, the bringing of the body to the work, the way a child’s drawings, scribbling appears like the body made the work, wrote the letter, instead of the head….what i always loved about your work, particularly after Fact or Fiction, was that: that it is the physicality of the images that are so extraordinary, more than just the painterly aspects to your iconography, but the pictures are incredibly tactile….as i said, i see gorgeous narrative there (like the late work of giacomelli or the dreams of meatyard or scratches of witkin) but what really impresses me, has always dones so, is the incredible feel of the pictures…..funny, cause when i went back and looked at your earlier work a couple of years ago, it’s there to, more physical portraits, including lots of interesting physical details (spit, sweat, shape of ears, fingernails, cut on cloth, etc) that are portraits themselves…..

    i agree that hard work banishes doubt :))…but that’s the great thing about your iconography now, for me, that it (besides the aeshetic and oneiric allusions to other ideas/artists) conjures up struggle: struggle to make sense of both our internal lives and the external ones….

    christ, that was a mouthful ;)))…sorry….

    so, if it’s ok, can i ask a follow up?….

    as the physical texture of the pictures becomes increasingly characters in the books, can u envision a time when your work moves toward figureless…i mean like interior ‘landscapes’….thinking of Siskind’s work, for example….where the pictures themselves become like exploratory geography, archaeology (i actually have always thought of your work as archaeological)….without ‘people’ per se….boarding house seems to move in that direction, where the people in the story are less ‘subjects’ and the iconography/lines/scratches/hands/toes/dirt/detritus are the subjects…..

    like russian icons or frescoes?…the texture and iconography become the subject, not the people or place per se?

    thanks again

    cognac/tea waiting

  41. DAVID: :))

    email send with contact….i expect u should hear from one of them shortly :)))))

    enjoy Rio…good shooting, stay safe!


  42. kittens in pants..
    or lack of…..

  43. Roger, thanks for the reply, but my main question had nothing to do with your “dreams.” And I didn’t mean to suggest you were a commercial photographer in the normal sense of the word. But are you saying you don’t accept any money for your work? That’s either very noble or you are fortunate to be so well set financially.

    But mainly, I noted the progression of your work from rural, to small town, to big city and wondered if you were from a rural area or small town and moved to the city or if you’re from the city and “traveled” to the countryside because you found it interesting from a photographic perspective. Just wondered about that in relation to the larger question of how we often see or don’t see detail based on our familiarity with place. No big deal if I never learn the answer to those questions, just wanted to clarify what the questions actually were.

    Guess I didn’t say it previously, but I like and very much respect the work and made no comment on any preference for earlier or later projects. Strikes me as a coherent whole, actually. Anyway, no negative criticism was, or is, implied by any of those questions.

  44. ROGER

    “”The Boarding House series adds a greater sense of complexity to the my body of work. I am not sure why it is there except that it is there.”” …………I guess thats a polite way of teliing me to fuck off. :)


  45. Roger,
    I saw the platteland work at the National Theatre in London donkeys years ago, it has stayed with me all this time. I was struck by the people foremost, then by the question of your access to them and then by “is this a real place”. I assumed that it was a real place and marvelled at how you found it and then marvelled at the way you managed to gain trust. I have never ventured further into to these questions and never explored your work further.

    Now when I see this essay, I am not sure from your statement if the place you describe as the “boarding house” is a real place (as in existed as its own entity before you came to document it) or it is a manufactured place where you have brought/bought in all the actors, built sets and supplied the props to create a series of images to your liking. This now brings a question into my mind as to the authenticity or the reality of Platteland. Are the people real or are they actors with good make up is the setting real or is it constructed by you? I suppose basically what I am asking is are your a documentary photographer or are you an art photographer contructing things to look like documentary?

    look forward to your response.


  46. This is not a “boarding house” per se. It is an abandoned industrial building and the “actors” are squatters. The people are real, but the essay (and book) are a work of fiction. I believe this is among the worse cases of exploitation I’ve ever seen. What level of crap are you willing to praise in the name of “art?” A new low for Burn, I’m afraid. What garbage.

  47. This work looks like performance (which is fine if it is stated as such). For instance the feet in the last picture are dirty but they are not the feet of someone who walks around all day with no shoes (no thick skin, no cracked skin etc) they look like feet that have had make-up applied to them to make them look dirty. Also the clothes, they are dirty (make-up again) but not worn out or torn as would be the case of squatters/homeless. It seems to me you can even see the creases in the newly unpacked dress of the girl in the title picture.

    Maybe it is the cynic in me but I am not able to “suspend my disbelief” and I just see this as a performance.

    If I am totally wrong with my assumptions I would love to know.



  48. These are real squatters. They are not actors. It is not performance art, it is exploitation.

    Imants, I won’t even dignify such a stupid question by answering it.

  49. Maybe you forgot to read this part………“It is difficult to explain this place except that I think it exists in some way or another in most people’s mind.”

  50. Imants, it is real. It is a real abandoned building and these are real squatters. Ask the photographer, although he seems reluctant to answer questions directly.

  51. So what squatters are not beyond participating is photographic activities you exploit people every day by placing them in print whether they like it or not…… you just go under the safety net called news

  52. Jim:

    clearly you are not/were not familiar with ballen’s work or the history of ballen’s work. the question of ‘exploitation’ has been one that has come up before. I’ll only offer a few things for you to ponder:

    1) Ballen works with many of the same people/children, much the way Meatyard photographed his family, friends and neighbors in his own staged-photographs

    2) the people in the photographers have a dialog with roger and are willing participants and while they may not necessarily understand the power of the image or the underlying philosophical/aeshetic convictins that drive roger’s work (and how many non-photographers when asked to work with photographers get this)they are part of the dialogue

    3) the photographs are created too, including with props and specifically chosen locations.

    4) in this book, his latest, you should be reading the word ‘boardinghouse’ more widely….

    5) part of the entire body of ballen’s work deals with the questioning of documentary photography, originally how it dealt specifically with race/land/language/identity issues in South Africa, but has become more internal and more universal…

    6) part of the question of ‘exploitation’ is inherent in his working manner: in other words, this is part of the questions that ballen is asking…

    mind you, again, those people and children photographed in the series that have been published in his last 4 books, beginning with Outlands, are participants, actually collaborators…. if you look at the powerful book Platteland, the theatrical nature of these real portraits have already come to the surface…..and maybe Jim, just maybe, one of ballen’s essential offerings is to question our own, as photographers, relationship to subjects/people/portrait….

    since most of the time we all photograph people with nothing but exploitive intentions….

    you no less with your kids in the sprinklers….

    all the best

  53. This thread’s been kind of interesting, though surely not in the way intended. We’re encouraged to ask questions of the photographer, which implies that the photographer is eager to answer questions. Yet, pretty much every question that comes along is “answered” by someone other than the photographer and the photographer mostly “answers” questions that weren’t asked and seems somewhat put out to do even that. What fun!

    And to answer your question, Jim… Ha ha. Just kidding.

  54. bob, there is no need to explore this ground again. These people are vulnerable because of their situation. These photos were not designed to improve their situation. Or explain their situation. or tell us anything about them. The photos are works of art, where vulnerable people are posed like marionettes. They are mute. They are put into situations to express the photographer’s ideas, not their own. They are being exploited.

  55. Bob,
    thanks for your clear explanation. i also await Roger’s input.

    Bob if what you are saying is the reality/methodogy of Ballen’s works, it has become clearer in my mind what he is seeking to achieve. It also allays the cynic in me, as I was really beginning to think that this guy was trying to hoodwink us all. These are unusual scenes that he is showing us, so unusual that, to my mind they must be manufactured.

    A far as I see it roger has managed to confuse/mess up the boundries of the issue of documentary as art or art as documentary or is it immatation of documentary photography. I was certainly fooled until it has come to a point where I could no longer believe that this was real documentary, to many “happy co-incidences” just pushes it over the top and the whole thing crumbles as you realise “you’ve been had”



  56. Jim, for how I understand your comments it almost seems that the people in the photographs are being exploited for what they are (squatters), like they have no option or their own opinion because of their being squatters. Do I understand you correctly?

  57. Rodger…

    Could you please share a few words regarding your motivations for creating these pictures and for what is it that you try to communicate through them?

    I do find your work interesting, but I feel like I’m watching a foreign film without subtitles… When watching a Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton film featuring similarly disturbing sets, I can easily pass through the creepiness by following the plot and dialogue… here, it feels like I’m given only the set and left to decipher for myself what the plot might be… all the while, not speaking your visual language…

  58. Ian/Thodoris :)

    I too await Roger’s answers as his answers/details are more important.

    , but i think it is important that when the body of a photographer’s work is show, it necessitates the exammination of the entire body of work. I’m not Ballen expert, but i love his work, from beginning to end. As i wrote, i first saw his work in 2003 (fact or fiction) and then went back to his early ‘documentary’ portraits of South Africans. The ‘fiction’ work is a natural growth, imho. Actually, when one looks at his earlier book, some of the same iconography and questions are all there only in less ‘theatric’ ways, but they are there, clearly in the physicality of the faces and his use of light and location. I dont think Ballen’s work is about ‘being had’ but it is very very important for us, especially with the notion of documentary photograhy as to what this is. Why is it that the notion of ‘fact/fiction’ is always black/white, when in truth it is much more illusive and slipery…these people ARE REAL and for me the ideas and emotions are real and as i tried to write in my first post, the iconography and emotions are univeral, not just about these ‘characters’….that said, one comes to learn from others and also one forms connections….i dont want to write too much, because i think it is best for Roger to speak…but i think each of us must do our thinking and wrestling…i know sooooo many photographers (documentary and non-documentary alike) who ‘use’ people by shooting them without them eveni knowing, let alone actively inviting them to participate in the imges/environment…..but, above all the pictures provoke, as they should, questions that each of us needsto be thinking about, all the time, especially as photographers….our internal relationship with the external and with how we view and deal with the world…

    Jim: well, it is for certain, that you view these pictures as explotive and as i said, i think that question is an intrinsic part of what Roger has accomplished and that he ASKS QUESTIONS visually, intellectually, sociologically that MANY documentary photographers never ask….as a newspaper guy, i am surprised that you dont see this…given your affinity for questioning the veracity of others….but that is ok….i think if you go back and long at his entire body of work, it will make more sense….i have more respect, for this work, than for journalists who go into a land of suffering and then leave it with their career’s augmented…make sense?…..ballen has a relationship with these people that is born of both trust and history…and that’s much much much less (infinitely so) exploitive than the vast majority of people’s realtionships with their subjects…

    anywa, that’s enough of me..:)))…as michael pointed out, it’ll be better for roger to address your questions/concerns

    all the best

  59. is mr. ballen any more exploitive of his subjects than was diane arbus? what about women who choose to work at “hooters,” what is the exploitation level there? is there any difference? ????
    wish i knew.

  60. its funny really that although I seem to been labeled as a ‘hostile witness’ early on, I actually have no problem with Mr ballens work. I own a couple of his books, and I have always thought of his work as both strong photography and challenging art. Unlike jim I have no problem at all with the issue of exploitation.
    personally I Couldnt give a rats arse whether they are willing participants, brain dead(sorry ‘challenged’) asylum dwellers,inhabitants of fraggle rock or whether they are jacked up with cosh prior to shooting.
    None of my buisness or concern.
    What I did want to know however was WHY the particular progression (or possibly regression) in the latest offering. I truly see it as more contrived, and therefore much less convincing than earlier work and Also much less powerful mainly for those reasons.
    I was also very curious as to they WHY HERE (not as you interpreted roger as ‘why it is’) given your known dislike of the internet as a viewing medium, and your position on that.
    Sorry if I came across as an untutored slum dweller eager to throw stones of ignorance at the palaces of the worthy, but we can only dance the dances we know.


  61. dq

    Arbus’ was absolutely exploitive and dis-honest with her subjects.

    I’m definitly un-comfortable with Rogers work, but hesitate to call it exploitive. Perhaps a better comparison might be Shelby Lee Adams Appalachian work, which I see as honouring the sometimes bizarre folks depicted who are friends and probably relatives.

    Knowing that Ballen befriends and colaberates with his subjects helps me to understand a little more what is going on. I suspect that some of his subjects may have a better appreciation of the work than we might expect. I’m sure being homeless does not shrink ones brain. Their circumstances may even hieghten their appreciation of the surreal nature of what is going on.

    Roger, I’d love to know how the process unfolds when you are working, that is, how much of a collaberation with the subjects goes on.
    Secondly, do you show the work to those depicted, and hopefully give them prints? If so, what reaction do they have to the work?

  62. To Michael Webster:

    By commercial, I meant I do not accept assignments from other people.

    To Michael Webster: I have lived and worked in Johannesburg since 1982 and was born in New York City. From 1994 none of my images were taken in rural areas of South Africa.

    To John Gladdy:

    I did not tell you and would never contemplate telling you to Fuck off. I suggested that you should think more deeply about your question.

    To J. Karanka:

    I found the people in the Boarding House.

    T0 ALL:

    The issue of exploitation in photography has been raging for well over a century. I find it quite irrelevant, boring and misguided. In my opinion, it is an evasive immature mechanism for evaluating images.

    I would suggest that my photographs be viewed in the same way that one might look at a painting. In other words, the aesthetic issues should be noted rather than trying to figure out what my relationship is with the people. (There are far more animals in these images than people and nobody has attempted to comment on them and what they mean)

    The problem that photography regularly faces is that there are very few individuals who are capable of discerning the differences between so called traditional photography and fine art photography. Most of the responses I have received today indicate a lack of awareness of the artistic process and an inability to discern aesthetic meaning. I would even take the liberty of stating that most of these comments reflect an underdeveloped aesthetic psyche.

  63. “The problem that photography regularly faces is that there are very few individuals who are capable of discerning the differences between so called traditional photography and fine art photography. Most of the responses I have received today indicate a lack of awareness of the artistic process and an inability to discern aesthetic meaning. I would even take the liberty of stating that most of these comments reflect an underdeveloped aesthetic psyche.” …..which i believe is a polite way of telling ‘all of us’ to fuck off.
    Thank you for taking the time to answer these roger. VERY enlightening indeed.


  64. So, what you’re saying Roger is that your work is aimed towards those enlightened beings such as yourself with an overdeveloped aesthetic psyche, and the rest of us should go back to the mud we crawled out of… nice…

  65. It’s hard for me to discern why those who pose questions to the artist respond to his replies as if they were personal attacks. Do you really imagine that Roger has not heard these questions and many more like them over his years of creating images that stretch the boundaries of photography? Can we not engage in a civil discussion in which we ask questions and listen to the answers even if they don’t specifically address what we wanted to know? Every answer opens a door to our understanding if we let it. I’d say this is an amazing opportunity Roger is giving us. I personally would love to hear more about his creative process.

    For instance, he has said he goes into each day of shooting with no preconceived ideas, and then creates only one image on each particular day. This reminds me of my years as a painter and multimedia artist. Often I tried to shut off my conscious mind and dredge up memories, dreamscapes, symbols and such from unnameable places within me. It was often months and sometimes years before I could see what these works meant. Sometimes they remained a mystery, even from me. This made it very difficult for me to come up with any reasonable artist’s statement. I wanted the images to speak directly to the viewers and set up a dialogue with them, not with me.

    Is this similar to what happens with you, Roger? But somehow I doubt if you ever try to figure your images out. I sense you are the kind of person who lives comfortably with mystery.


  66. There were more than a couple of civilly put questions for Roger, but he chose to answer them all at once by saying that anyone who-questions/doesn’t-get his work has an underdeveloped aesthetic psyche. We did not imagine the hostility; it’s right there in black and white.

  67. seem like we all need a drink – cognacs all round?

    what an extraordinary environment to stumble upon roger.. a gift of sorts..
    i like what you´ve done with the place :ø)

    to me you´ve created a series of intriguing moment´s with gentle compositions which utterly contradict the scrawls on the walls and the grubby feet.. and the idea of a boarding house.

    the animals, breathing or toys, make the place feel like an ´indoors-outside´, where it´s people building layers on the plaster, rather than nature overgrowing a woodland with moss ..
    there´s nothing like a bit of residue.
    glad you photograph rather than paint as the textures and lush tones could be lost.

    ´pathos´, or 08, is a jungle of a photo.
    perhaps me after too many potions a couple of years ago.. looks like my digs..
    cannot stop soaking it in
    cannot afford it either.

    no question as such – although it´d be great if you could pass on a couple of contemporary photographers you admire..
    with thanks.

  68. Thodoris, to me it seems that up to when the issue of exploitation (in a rather rude manner) came up, Roger answered the questions in an appropriate manner.. even if perhaps some haven’t gotten the answers they were waiting for. Anyway, I find both, questions and answers, quite interesting..

  69. this is a site for emerging photographers, and so it could be said that roger is being obvious with the judgment of readership.. or has not read the box before tasting the cereal.

    the defensive attitudes are unsuitable though..
    none of us has to explain ourselves.

    why give a monkeys-arm what is said of our knowledge – pride?
    roger has no idea how to whittle flint, i hear.. not yet anyway.
    ah.. neither do i..
    ah well.

    simply take what we will from the work..
    enjoy or enjoy being befuddled by it and move on.
    there is no elitist game – the work is for all to take as we see it..

    there´s nothing to fight, despite jims exertions.
    jims been.. ya know.. jim.. again.. not just a broken record, but one stuck right in the chorus of an annoying song.. i often like your input jim, yet feel for you that your passion is misplaced regarding ´exploitation´.

    i ABSOLUTELY agree that hard work dispels doubt.

    if my comments make me seem aesthetically blind, so be it..
    i know nothing.

  70. I have an underdeveloped aesthetic psyche, a lot of conceptual fine art photography strikes as very emperor’s new cloths. This bothers me. I don’t mind understanding something and not liking it but hate not liking stuff I know nothing about. Is there something – someone – someplace that is an easy way in to this type of photography?

  71. harry – just soak it up with some good music in the background.. play with it and spend time wandering over the details.

    i did not enjoy jazz more once i read about it´s history.. the history just fed the context..
    it is in the moment that the music hits the spot.

  72. i think that if something seems to exclude us it´s not because it is exclusive – maybe it´s because we´re afraid to feel stupid..

    i used to think jazz was above me.. exclusive.. until i actually began to listen to it and the doors blew open..

  73. Maybe Roger misunderstood the purpose of this question/answer thing… this wasn’t meant to be an interview… we’re all photographers here… this is more of an online workshop/masterclass than anything else… and even though each of us shoots our own thing in our own way, we’re all interested in the creative process and everything about and around that process… so, none of the questions asked were out of order in my mind…

  74. Hi Roger,

    it’s true that “there are far more animals in these images than people”, but it seems to me that there are also more drawings/inscriptions than people/animals/objects… How do you consider them? Are they sort of “shortcuts” for concepts? Can they be considered as an admission of inadequacy of the photographic medium in fulfilling your vision?

  75. Well that’s just silly and appears as junkyard contrarianism for the sake of it. But I do agree things do stray, though not due to the editors’ choices, imo. I enjoyed this as a stretch and challenge to my own perceptions, and am left with questions to ponder, as it should be. And even if I were not, if I neither understood nor appreciated, I respect the freedom of expression enough not to lift my leg on it. What was it that Chris Johns just wrote about the rising din of shrill voices … ? :)) Good words, and yeah, I still get that magazine too.

  76. OOPs that came out wrong (struggling to type with a sleeping three year old on my lap)

    should read “often it is what is not said, that tells us the most”



  77. Jim your self eviction is timely and it will give you that chance to put your own photographic values in place instead of preaching. I for one will not miss your lack of presence

  78. I always hope there is room for everyone here. I know DAH’s door — physical and virtual — is open to all points of view, ways of being in the world, inner and outer realities. So Jim and Imants see photography through different lenses. Good! And there are certainly times that each of us regulars gets our fur rubbed the wrong way. Whenever that happens to me I just take time out and either don’t read or don’t post comments for awhile. But I always come back. Why? Because this is where I belong, among you wonderfully unique folks. I have yet to find another community that shares my passion for all things photographic. Besides I care about each of you. When Davin was mugged and robbed, it was like this had happened to a friend. And it had, because, like it or not, we have a shared history and that counts for a lot in these days of instant everthing.

    So Jim, take time out if that’s what you need. But please come back. You’ll always have a place at the table.


  79. Jim:

    your first two posts were gun-shot attacks over the bow accusing Roger of being exploitive (that is, as i tried to write, both an eggregious error and a quite arrogant and foul one considering that you kno nothing at all about either his relationship with the people and animals nor his private intentions) based solely on the “áppearance” of the photographs you have seen. Ok, so let me give you an example: you go to a play of Samuel Beckett’s Ënd Game”, the performers are 2 homeless people and a stray, the play is performed, and a photographer, for example, photographs this and is this exploitive? The problem is that instead of respectfully asking a question, you basically said “roger ballen, you are an exploiter and your work is garbage.”….without any knowledge, on your part, of his oevre, his prior work, his life story, nor his relationship with the people he photographs. Moreover, why can we not (as i’ve tried to write for a long time now) as photographers see work not only as social documentary, or as journalism…might not aesthetic work áppear’as documentary, may not documentary work deal with conceptual and aesthetic questions, may not aesthetic photography house itself in a language and form of documentary as a tending ground…Christopher Marker’s film ‘Sans Solei’…is this essay, fiction, documentary, examination, poem…or all of the above??….isn’t roger’s work the same?….when, for example, the great painter Leon Golub paints pictures of torture and suffering, we don’t accuse him of exploiting the people from whom he models his imagery on?….i think the biggest problem with photography, often, is that many just cannot get beyond it’s slippery surface, it’s appearance to the ‘real’to the ‘document’…ballen’s work has as much to do with questions about painting as it does documentary photography and no one cries foul when the issue comes up with painters or sculptors…..the biggest problem, i feel, is not the questioning of the work, or the confusion of the work, but by the decision you seem to have made, a priori, that it was both crap and exploitive….that is both unfortunate and unsound….as photographers, no as people, we need to be wider thinking and more generous in our inspection and in our introspection….

    i will be saddened to see you leave (though i think we have been fighting with each other from day 1) because discussion involves argument/collision….but, i shall not miss your willingness to so quickly castigate….not like, no problem….call someone an exploiter, that’s a different can a worms….


    just a brief line, as im running on deadline….about the use of Burn with iconic photographers: i personally think it IS GREAT. What more would a photographer wish for that to have their work beside others work, beside coupled with older and younger photographers. I love having unknown/young photographers here, emerging photographers and i love having established/challenging photographers…Nachtwey/Bollen couldnt be more different and both of the work is critical to the life and thinking of photography/photographers….I think the balance of having all these photographers and again, that David/Anton have democratized this is what to me, as a photographer who has published here and elsewhere, feel elated….often here, i’ve felt odd-man out, as i love conceptual stuff/aeshetic photography, but what makes a magazine successful is not whether people dig everything but that it showcases what is the possibility and the strength and the elasticity and ingenuinty of this medium that defines many of our lives and stories….i hope and trust we do not loose sight of that

  80. Bob,

    I think, “Jim has left the building” it might be too late to get him back, but somehow I have a feeling he will sit back viewing and scoffing.

    Anyway, is Ballen through his work seeking to evoke the reactions he has seen here? If so he has been successfull. There is no doubt his work is controversial and will cause reaction and response, I am sure he has seen it all before.


  81. “I would suggest that my photographs be viewed in the same way that one might look at a painting. In other words, the aesthetic issues should be noted rather than trying to figure out what my relationship is with the people”


    Paintings and photographs operate on completly different planes. A photograph is not just an lazy way to attatch an image to a piece of paper.

    The most magic and elemenetal aspect of a photograph is that it has an immediate connection, in a physical way, to an actual reality. The surface of the image must be dealt with and ultimately will affect how we view any deeper layers or meanings it contains. To suggest we ignore the fact that these are real people in such a bizarre setting is ridiculous to the extreme.

  82. This has got to be one of the best dialogues I’ve seen on Burn.

    The question of exploitation is interesting. Everyone who is familiar with Roger’s work knows the type of subjects he is drawn to, and the criticism he drew when palateland was first shown.

    I do think it’s a testament to his work that people have such a strong reaction. Why is it that a photographer can take a photo of a mentally ill patient in a hospital and it can be seen as bringing awareness, but Roger is accused of exploitation because his artistic hand is more readily seen? Photography is always about a level of exploitation, but for me Roger’s work doesn’t seem to be menacing. Yes, he is making the viewer look at an extreme version of the way these people live, but we don’t see his subjects as drooling idiots ( or worse, poor beggars) i actually think that Roger allows his subjects a level of dignity- why should we assume that because they are squatters that they do not understand that they are playing a part in an important peice of art?
    I asked Roger what he thought about people who will more happily view Palateland at a gallery than Boarding house. I think that people will eat up photos of anything as long as it looks like traditional documentary photography. Personally, I think Palateland raised a lot of ethical questions that the boarding house does not. By staging the photos he is giving his subjects the right to decide how they want to be shown.

  83. JIM…ALL

    the “emerging photographer” moniker will stay…..this magazine is FOR emerging photographers , but that does not mean every single essay is BY an emerging photographer…i have assumed that readers here enjoyed meeting an established photographer now and then and all of them have jumped in and answered your questions…established photographers are published everywhere of course…point is, here on Burn they participate with you…Martin Parr, Bill Allard, James Nacthwey, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Rebecca Norris and Alex Webb, Steve McCurry, Bruce Gilden and several others have jumped in to talk to you…there will be more of course…i also want to bring in some editors and gallerists as well..each one requires some effort on my part to bring in…they are all very very busy people and normally do not sit down and take the time to jump into a photography blog…so far, all have described a positive experience here and i think most of you have appreciated in return…so, we will continue….

    cheers, david

  84. one thing i will NEVER understand is ANGER over one type of photographer/photography over another…since anger is totally internal it MUST come from some inferiority complex/jealousy issue….not liking is one thing…but ANGER?

  85. “..Good mooooooorning Vietnam…!”
    last day of shooting in the city of Mustaches today.
    tomorrow night reuniting with my laptop…skype sensation tomorrow night..
    if anyone available..hit me up…

  86. DAVID [laughing] So I guess when big groups of photographers get together for their AGM’s there never any anger or argument over photography and photographers |:)) [hmmm?]

    Hows Rio??



    yes, of course you are right…smiling…HCB was “angry” with Martin Parr for example…i only said that “i” did not get it…never have, never will…and no matter how much i might disagree with you on certain issues regarding photographs or photographers or whatever, you are not someone with whom i could EVER be angry….

    Rio is terrific..just my cup of tea so to speak…sexy and dangerous..nice combo huh?? if you decide to show up i have a sofa here for you too…come my friend..THAT would be fun fun…


    yes, yes…you too…do not feel left out…but, you are off to Istanbul anyway ..right?? this is one place where both you and Gladdy here at the same time would not even cause a ripple…both of you are way way too too conservative for this town…

    cheers, david

  88. Roger Ballen wrote:

    “T0 ALL:

    The issue of exploitation in photography has been raging for well over a century. I find it quite irrelevant, boring and misguided. In my opinion, it is an evasive immature mechanism for evaluating images.

    I would suggest that my photographs be viewed in the same way that one might look at a painting. In other words, the aesthetic issues should be noted rather than trying to figure out what my relationship is with the people. (There are far more animals in these images than people and nobody has attempted to comment on them and what they mean)

    The problem that photography regularly faces is that there are very few individuals who are capable of discerning the differences between so called traditional photography and fine art photography. Most of the responses I have received today indicate a lack of awareness of the artistic process and an inability to discern aesthetic meaning. I would even take the liberty of stating that most of these comments reflect an underdeveloped aesthetic psyche.” ..end of quote…

    my thought:

    some of you have taken offense at this comment…but, i suggest taking a deep breath and really listening and reading carefully…sometimes the truth hurts….i often feel here on Burn that many commentators just do not have a fully developed sense of the history of photography nor a broad appreciation of aesthetics…this is just fine of course and one of the reasons we are here is as an educational tool…but if you are going to comment, then i think it wise to “have your ducks lined up”…..so, is Roger being elitist or just honest?? think about it…

    cheers, david

  89. DAVID. Thats a very tempting proposition my friend. Unfortunately I am stuck in the middle of a bill paying piece of work, and am buried in the getty video archives trying to source footage, draft scripts, and avoiding throttling art directors(barely)…etc etc. I do so need some sun at the moment though :)
    Will be looking to take a break somewhere hot when this is done.
    Anyway the espresso machine is calling :) sin cafe no hay manyana…as they say.


  90. David…

    Anyone can create a picture that contains symbolism with elements of universal appeal—fear, abandonment, loss of innocence, etc… Even me:
    What I hoped to find in the work and words of someone like Roger was a deeper sense of understanding both of the issues he has decided to explore and (more importantly) of the process he has come up with in his attempt to present/communicate his thoughts and feelings *and* (even more importantly) a willingness to discuss/describe/share this process… I do not consider myself “fully developed” and to me Burn represents primarily an extension of your efforts to educate and help the next generation of photographers to become “fully developed”… now, to what extent do you consider the above quote you posted as helpful in providing tools for us to understand Rogers work and process/visual language? At best, it’s just a truthful comment about the stage of our development… he had the opportunity to educate us through his work and his presence here, but instead he chose to provide a critique about who he thinks we are…

    Cheers, Thodoris

  91. he had the opportunity to educate us through his work and his presence here,
    well Thodoris , he actually did that , as you also wrote above..with his work..
    what else could he do? that was his “job” and he did it well imho.

  92. David,
    it seems that Roger has taken a view that everyone knows about his work and knows what his methodolgy is and is well educated in the arts. This is not true. So therefore what he says is true, we are not all educated to be aesthitic critics. Many people do not know Roger’s work and at first glance it can be pretty shocking and seem exploitative (Jim was so shocked he had to abandon us to our squabbles). Is this the kind of reaction Roger is trying to generate? It seems to me he is. I can see there might be a reluctance to explain his work because as soon as you do most of the shock dissipates as you understand this is a performance/creation to encourage debate and is not an existing situation.

    As mentioned earlier I was captivated by Roger’s plattelands work when I happened across it years ago in a public viewing gallery in a theatre, it through up so many questions of colonialism/interbreeding/isolated communities/evolotion/racism.

    For me this has been one of the most interesting and insightful stories on burn, trying to get beneath the artists skin, as Ballen, I consider to be a true artist, the whole discussion goes way beyond just the camera and people skills needed but the whole artistic vision/process and will certainly encourage myself and maybe others to explore artistic treatments and usage for photography.

    Happy days


  93. Roger,

    Thanks for your honest responses to the questions
    and challenging our perceptions.


    Thanks for shaking things up. This is what makes

  94. what i mean ,is that when for example i stare to a Picasso painting i dont really expect the artist to send me an email to explain to me the process of his thoughts..!! that is my “job” to do.. the artists job is his/her art..and that job is done… actually RB here (artist) sat down and “explained” to us as much as he could..That wasnt his job..but just because he is NOT an elitist he tried to answer as much questions he could…

  95. …but instead he chose to provide a critique about who he thinks we are…

    Thodoris as DAH said above:

    “…some of you have taken offense at this comment…but, i suggest taking a deep breath and really listening and reading carefully…sometimes the truth hurts….i often feel here on Burn that many commentators just do not have a fully developed sense of the history of photography nor a broad appreciation of aesthetics…this is just fine of course and one of the reasons we are here is as an educational tool…but if you are going to comment, then i think it wise to “have your ducks lined up”…..so, is Roger being elitist or just honest?? think about it…”

    cheers, david

  96. (There are far more animals in these images than people and nobody has attempted to comment on them and what they mean)

    Roger great stuff, it reminds me of my dog’s Boneyard a great place and important………..

  97. T,;)
    unless i missed something…when did he NOT answer?
    maybe he didnt cover every single question but who does anyways…
    i mean i still dont get where the exact problem is…should have answered more questions?
    longer answers? what am i really missing here?

  98. The other day I saw a documentation about the German artist Markus Lüpertz. I was amazed by his excentric way of expressing himself, and at the same time the honest way of seeing himself. The whole universe turns around him, from his point of view. Many people respond very angry about him.
    However, I think that is what an artist should perceive his own work. If an artist is not convinced by himself, who else should?

    Markus Lüpertz was nearly suffocating photography in the University in Düsseldorf, as for him, photography is not art. Looking at Roger’s and other people’s pictures I have to say, my opinion is different.

    I guess the way the audience responds to art, or pictures is always a reflection of their own. Angryness from this point of view is just a very strong reflection of their own views and how they stand.

    Showing Beauty, the “reality” or exploitation – whenever the pictures are good, one can feel a story behind a picture … and to transport this is the real art.

    For me, as emerging photographer it is very enlighting to see the work and the views of photographers “who made it”, and I am always curious to see the different aspects photography can be .. succesful.

    Thanks, Roger, DAH and Lassal for making it happen in this instance.

  99. I mean T,
    how would u “explain” your photo with “door” above?
    what could write in this blog as an inspiration/explanation of your photo
    with the danger of sounding pompous ?

  100. And so there no misunderstanding… I do not have any issue with “this type” of photography being shown here or the fact that he’s not an emerging photographer… on the contrary, I do view each such appearance of an established practitioner as a masterclass lecture and I’m very appreciative to you David for making it happen… it must surely take lots of time and effort to put these things together for us and I do appreciate that my (and others’) reaction to Roger’s words could potentially act as a detergent (is this the right word?) for future guests of Roger’s caliber… this isn’t/wasn’t my intention at all… but I still perceive Roger’s comment not as helpful but as spiteful… to me, he’s the one who retreated to his high castle and demoted the dialogue to what it has now become… if, over the years and by asked one too many times the same stupid questions by underdeveloped people such as myself, he has developed an intolerance for a specific type of questions regarding his work/process/ethics then he should have declined participation in an open mic situation…

  101. if, over the years and by asked one too many times the same stupid questions by underdeveloped people such as myself,
    Thodoris, i get your self sarcasm.. but RB was not refering to u…why did u take it so personally?
    his statement was absolutely valid (why spiteful?),
    and not just because later DAH validate it and agreed but thats how things are…
    (and i gladly include myself in that “underdeveloped” ocean btw).
    but still i dont take it personally..its just the truth imo

  102. he’s the one who retreated to his high castle and demoted the dialogue to what it has now become…
    c’mon brother…!! now we crossing lines..
    this is what we always love doing here: “scare the sh** out of people”

  103. i think some are imagining ballen reclining in a smoking jacket with a smug grin and eyes looking down his nose, whereas he might just be leaning forward with a warm smile, a glint in his eye and palms facing upward…

  104. Ian… thanks

    by posting that link, I was making that exact point… I cannot explain/express that picture… I only know that when I entered that room I knew I had to capture that picture… by the way it’s an actual place and not an imagined one, and therefore I did not put any thought into placing particular elements in the space/frame in order to express or indicate/refer-to particular issues… while Roger’s pictures are (if I understand this correctly) comments about deep personal and social issues expressed in a visual language, pushing the boundaries of our medium… if so, what is so strange in my premise that his work could (and if I may push it a bit further here: should) be explainable…

  105. I am not sure if TT is taking it personally.

    Yes, Roger’s statement is Valid, and yes he doesn’t have to explain anything he does.

    But as TT suggests Roger accepted to answer questions about his work, and maybe those questions didn’t go in the form that he wanted so he shut down conversation. This is a little harsh don’t you think.

    look at the question and answers Martin Parr did, he spent a fair amount of time answering the some really mundane questions (which I expect he gets asked a millions times as his public presence is more visible than Ballens) He was polite and to the point.

    This is not to say I expect everyone to behave in the same way.

    If you put your work out there, there will be questions and critism about it, it come with the territory.

    DAH, I think you are right to say “you better have your ducks lined up” to the readership here but also the same applies to Roger if he is to agree to enter into a question and answer session.



    P.S. Panos I was correcting TT as he seemed to be wondering if he was using the right word.

  106. Ian..:)
    (no pun intended)..not at all..i only use detergent for my dirty laundry btw..

    ok, now on a serious note..the complaint has to do with the artist not explaining enough, right?
    but does that make him an elitist? if he was really that wouldnt be easier for him to just have comments closed? I could see the “not explaining enough part” but i cant see the “elitist” part..

  107. Thodoris, you’re asking to be guided along the path, whereas perhaps Roger Ballen only opens the door and pushes you out there, to find your way alone, fro now on.. dunno..

  108. As much as I am enjoying this lively discussion, Burn at the moment is a bit of a displacement activity, I must get on. I have honed down 5700 images down to 376 and I need to get it down to 20 images, then I need to post process the lucky winners.

    So for now folks I am out of here, catch up with you all later.


  109. I would suggest that my photographs be viewed in the same way that one might look at a painting. In other words, the aesthetic issues should be noted rather than trying to figure out what my relationship is with the people.

    I’m with that statement 100 percent. Anything else quickly devolves into psychobabble.

    I hope, David, that you did not count me among the angry. I realize that I did bungle the question thing. Unfortunately, I was in one of my “not reading the artist statement, judging the work by the work” phases and didn’t note that Roger was from New York or even that he was a famous photographer. Sure, now, I see the clues were all over the place, but to be honest, I only asked a question because he was a guest and I was under the impression he wanted to take questions. I confess, though, that I found it amusing. But Anger? No. And my question about how the progression of his photos may or may not be related to the progression of his travels honestly had nothing to do with my appreciation, or not, of the work. I just find it interesting how most of us humans so easily see what’s unique about radically different people and places but have so much trouble seeing it among the commonplace.

    I would even take the liberty of stating that most of these comments reflect an underdeveloped aesthetic psyche.

    I don’t know if I were included in that group, but it’s probably true I have an underdeveloped aesthetic psyche, at least by art criticism standards. It’s not that I’m entirely uneducated. I’ve done graduate level study, been to many world class museums and galleries, and read countless works of art criticism. I enjoy art criticism very much as entertainment, but try as I might, I just can’t take it seriously. All the many, many, impressive words thrown at art and development of aesthetic psyche just strike me as gobbledygook in the end. I don’t think I’ve ever, not even once, seen any meaningful relationship between a piece of art criticism and the art it’s critiquing. Again, I often enjoy reading it, but I don’t think it’s a much more enlightening way to be entertained than watching football. And artists’ statements are much worse. They are more likely to kill any appreciation I might have for a work. I don’t think one has ever made me like an artist’s work more.

    So yes, I’m guilty of having an undeveloped, nay undevelopable, aesthetic psyche, at least in the sense I think Roger is using it. But still, when people make statements like that, that people are essentially too stupid to understand their oh-so-important aesthetic offerings, they do open themselves to ridicule. That kind of statement is so emblamatic of the really bad artist. It’s the kind of thing you see on Saturday Night Live or in some lame sitcom. So Roger, if you’re still with us, I offer this humble advice: Think it, don’t say it.

    And finally David and Anton, I think it’s great that you bring in accomplished photographers. Honestly, I like everything about burn magazine. Of course if I were making editorial choices I’d make different ones, but as I’ve said before, if it mattered that much to me I’d start my own magazine. Thing is, I’m self-aware enough to know it wouldn’t be as good as burn.

    And along those lines: Jim, if you’re still with us, you might seriously consider that option. You have very strong feelings about good photography, you’re an accomplished editor, why not start your own on-line magazine? I suspect I’d like it quite a lot.

  110. just a brief note (promise) as i’m dashing…

    with respect to Roger’s comment, i think it is completely about how we ‘interpret’ another’s writing/thoughts that offended some and not others. this IS the major problem with online/blog/email communication: we bewitch ourselves with both our own voice and what we imagine the sentiment of others to me. i plead guilty as charged on many occassions, particularly last year getting angry and others based on what they wrote and not really processing, breathing. we bring to interpretation and judgment of others mostly our own baggage. i for one have made a personal committment (to myself) not to get angry or judge another based on what i ‘think’ is their intention, but rather take themselves for that, period.

    I think some of the questions were not questions but accusations. This, in my humble opinion, is where Jim again crossed the line. rather than asking about ballen’s relationship to the pictures/people/animals/places, he immediately accussed him of ‘exploitation’ and called the work ‘garbage’ and called it ‘a new low for burn.’ This, frankly, is pretty offensive stuff. again, as i’ve tried to write many times before: imagine substituting the work ‘picture/essay/work’ for ‘you’ and then imagine haveing the same conversation with a person: ‘you are an expoiter, you are garbage, you suck, you are pretentious, you are the new emperor’s clothes, you are worthless, you are a waste of time’ ad naseum….that’s often what happens here (elsewhere) when people refuse to bring a basic level of inquiry, interest and respect. since when did photography every become so important that we have to humiliate and attack one another. I will NEVER understand this, passion or no passion.

    I think we all should offer all authors, whether we like/understand/respect/appreciate/get jonesed by the work a immediate level of respect and openness. I’ve seen so many phtoographers here attacked and for what good reason? David and Anton have literally worked their lives off, as have the authors of the work published as have all the behind-the-scenes people for what: TO CELEBRATE, TO REJOICE, TO DISCUSS photography…

    actually, i f0und ballen’s response reasonable. one get’s invited to show the work, to even participate (and by the way, Ballen is by nature a taciturn person, he isn’t like Parr, who is talkative and socially juiced by communication, ballen is a reserved person and i consider it a great surprise that he, in HIS WAY took the time to read all comments and to write. Remember Jim was the same way (nachtwey i mean): reserved, careful about what he wrote, quiet, etc). Ballen would never have participated like Martin did or David does because they are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PEOPLE!….actually, i thought his comment apt, even if not terribly diplomatic. if i were invited to someone’s house (and for some things i’m pretty thick skinned, for others i wear my emotions on my sleeve) and after a few questions/comments, was straight away attacked, i’m not sure i’d be terribly measured in my own reaction either.

    Learning how to see, opening our experiences is OUR responsibilities, not another persons, not another photographers or teachers…the greater the diversity here, the greater the experience and i think Burn has been invaluable and an enriching and interesting experience…as i said, i love that ballen and panos can be published together, than martin parr and marina black can go together, that Harvey and jukka, etc….that is what makes it worthwhile….

    one thing which is very important for each of us to learn and to remember, whether were 20 year old single mother or 50 year old magnum photographer (how old are you david? ;)) is that we grow as people, we grow as photographers when we learn to be open to experience, not in judgement, but from being engaged…as photographers, i think, more must widen their eyes, including seeing the value of a practice that is different from their own, and aside from that, to value all work, essentially as the same thing:

    to tell stories and as people stories and the importance that they speak about this quickly disappearing live is all we have….

    and that should be celebrated, not dueled over in anger…

    continue to burn-it on :)))))


  111. actually, i f0und ballen’s response reasonable. one get’s invited to show the work, to even participate (and by the way, Ballen is by nature a taciturn person, he isn’t like Parr, who is talkative and socially juiced by communication, ballen is a reserved person and i consider it a great surprise that he, in HIS WAY took the time to read all comments and to write
    i totally get that…agreed…i admit that i used to think that Nikos E. has an “elitist” attitude until i met him in person..then i immediately realized how stupid i was…

  112. “…In general, introverted artists focus deeply on their values, and they devote their lives to pursuing the ideal. They often draw people together around a common purpose and work to find a place for each person within the group. They are creative, and they seek new ideas and possibilities. They quietly push for what is important to them, and they rarely give up. While they have a gentleness about them, and a delightful sense of humor, they may be somewhat difficult to get to know and may be overlooked by others. They are at their best making their world more in line with their internal vision of perfection..”

    I dont know where did i find the above…but it helped me to understand a little better the difference between the introverted vs the elitist…With Nikos E. and Erica on my mind…
    All that said, personally “representing” the extroverted point of view

  113. “while Roger’s pictures are (if I understand this correctly) comments about deep personal and social issues expressed in a visual language, pushing the boundaries of our medium… if so, what is so strange in my premise that his work could (and if I may push it a bit further here: should) be explainable…”

    Thodoris, back when I was teaching painting in the 1990s, I remember presenting a slide show of my students’ work to a local artists group. I called it “Art is a secret we keep from ourselves.” I still see art this way whether we’re talking about fine art photography, painting, installation art, performance art, music, etc. If we could put into words what our images are saying, we wouldn’t need to create them in the artistic medium we choose. We would write them instead. When we’re asked to “explain” the meaning behind such work we either try to make something up that sounds deep and meaningful, try (often unsuccessfully) to put ito words something that is really beyond words and run the risk of imposing a superficial reading of it onto the viewers, or deflect the question in any way we can.

    As I see it, art is a dialogue between the object and the viewer. Once the artist has created it, she/he often does best to stand back and let the viewers interprete the work as they like. That kind of interpretation can also be the job of the art critic. There was a time when I was writing art criticsm for publications in Detroit and Chicago. To be honest, I cringe when I think of some of the pedantic, self-important, condescending and plain outright mean-spirited things I wrote. What a pompous ass I was!

    The fact that a fine art photographer like Roger Ballen, who works in such symbolic ways, even agreed to enter into a discussion here on Burn is amazing. And I found his responses to the questions to be thought-provoking and often touched with a wry wit. I hope to learn from him annd his work rather than try to figure it out. To my eye, it remains a mystery and that feels just right. By the way, I saw not a hint of elitism, merely a man who delves deep and hopes his work will encourage others to do the same.


  114. A few more thoughts…

    Admittedly, this was the first time I came across Roger Ballen’s work, and therefore my reaction thus far was based solely on the pictures and words (of his) at hand.

    So, as far as the irrelevancy and boringness of the exploitation of his human subjects goes… how much does he sell his works for? the pricelists on his personal website are password protected… and how much of the net gain from the print and book sales does he share with the ” disenfranchised, impoverished families, fugitives and witch doctors” who “collaborated” with him in the creation of his pictures?(Note#1) I do not expect nor suggest that he should answer to me personally, but the answer in itself would dictate for me whether or not he is committing exploitation against those people or not… and if he’s in fact helping those people one way or another, why not just come out and say that, instead of responding to questions/accusations against his ethics in the way he did?

    The fact that he has created a Foundation for the promotion of photography in South Africa, seems to be an indication of his noble intentions… (unless of course it’s one of those foundations that rich people create—taking advantage of tax exemptions and public funding for the arts programs—like those that flourish here in Cyprus…)

    And speaking about the Roger Ballen Foundation… how exactly does he go about achieving that “furthering the understanding and appreciation of photography” for his audiences?(Note#2) By telling them that discussions about human exploitation issues (the actual kind and not the theatrical representation of them) are boring and irrelevant? Or by telling them off in the grounds that they have “underdeveloped aesthetic psyches”?

    (Note#1: Quotes from the pdf accompanying his exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in NY)
    (Note#2: Quote from his official website)

  115. Also…

    After studying the wording of the pdf mentioned above, I got the feeling that the motivation behind creating those pictures was the hope that they could act in a similar way to the Rorschach Test… if so, then it makes total sense that their creator is so reluctant in analyzing them…

  116. and

    I do understand that Roger is your guest and you feel it’s your responsibly to provide support to him since he’s one and we’re many… but the fact is that he’s the one who insulted us… he could have easily ignored the questions/comments he didn’t like… since he decided not to though, he should have answered them instead of trying to belittle them and the people behind them… after all, we’re all your guests here, not only Roger. Verbal aggression can be blatant—as in swearwords, or hidden behind big words—as in what Roger did.

  117. Time, time, time… where do you all find the time?

    Lots of fun. I am so jealous. Wish I could jump in full fray.

    Jim – When you live to shoot bullets at others be they bad, good, mediocre or great, right, left, upside down or downside up, wet or dry, male, female, straight or gay, impassioned or indifferent, you should not be surprised and dismayed when others shoot bullets back at you. Still, I don’t think you should go. You should come back. Your dogged negativity oddly enough adds something positive to my life. I hate to see you go.

    Roger – I am still trying to decide if I am qualified to make an intelligent comment on your work. I really do like it, though. Is it exploitive? Yes, to a degree, but I would like someone to point out to me one self-life-sustaining human endeavor that isn’t. The folks in your pictures seem to feel okay about it. I do, too.

    If you just like to visit places that are below zero, then you should come and visit me. We can camp on the tundra and drink ice tea together. Then we can piss, and watch as yellow ice falls crackling and steaming into the snow.

    You can’t do that at the boarding house, now, can you?

  118. ¨If you just like to visit places that are below zero, then you should come and visit me. We can camp on the tundra and drink ice tea together. Then we can piss, and watch as yellow ice falls crackling and steaming into the snow.¨

    thats just too funny..

    on another note, pride is a killer just as too much love is.

  119. Patricia… I do appreciate both yours and Bob’s attempts to provide either some context (Bob) or a way-in these works…

    And by the way I did try to listen to the interview at Lensculture, but my stupid netbook refused to play it… I suppose that its mechanical inadequacy is only a projection/extension of my inadequate aesthetic psyche… I think this will be my catch phrase…

    Eva… I’m sorry, but you’ll have to figure that one out on your own :)

  120. Thodoris…
    i need to stay in athens till thursday..how about skype this friday or weekend?
    i want to say more on the subject but here its one misunderstanding after another…
    big hug

  121. Ok, Thodoris, nevermind.. just remember, to BE insulted is not the same as to FEEL insulted..

    night :)

  122. Panos… ok

    Eva… i do not exclude the possibility that I misread Roger’s words… but, I wasn’t alone in reading them this way, and he did not contradict my perception for more than a day now…

    I’m out too…

  123. Thodoris,

    “and how much of the net gain from the print and book sales does he share with the ” disenfranchised, impoverished families, fugitives and witch doctors” who “collaborated” with him in the creation of his pictures?”… hmm, a similar question could be asked to each and every photojournalist working in an impoverished area (and probably his subjects would be far less aware of “collaborating” with his work). And if we elevate the question from the basic level (money), both art and journalism (in different ways) can be considered as “bearing witness” imo; both of them can raise our awareness of the ties that connect each other as human beings…

  124. THODORIS…

    yes, indeed you are my guest here….and a well respected one….and you always bring up good points of discussion in an erudite manner…i do not put anyone, photographers or otherwise, on “levels”…so, just because Roger is a well respected photographer and published on Burn does not put him “above” anyone here nor any of the subjects in his photographs…i was merely suggesting that all of us really think about what he said..in fact we are having quite a good discussion imo…i hope it was obvious to all that publishing Nachtwey and Ballen within reasonable proximity to each other would give us real life real time contact with two photographers who represent entirely different “schools”…after all this is one of the generic discussions taking place all the time in our quixotic world of photography both journalistic and artistic…

    i have had the pleasure of meeting many respected artists of various kinds throughout my career…most would have a very difficult time “explaining” their work..their book forwards are always written by others….

    they imagine the work itself as the “explanation” for who they are and what they think…very few see themselves as teachers or mentors…that is another ability altogether and is in no way a prerequisite for being an artist…

    Roger Ballen wrote to me interested in Burn via a Lassal introduction…he was quite enthusiastic about joining us here…i did have to lean on him just a bit to even consider jumping in on comments….he originally thought of the classic interview where he would answer my submitted questions..please read his interview with Darius Hines on his website..that would have been his preferred medium….i suggested to Roger that perhaps he would receive intelligent thought provoking questions from our audience here…if you read Darius’ interview then you can imagine where Roger would like to have gone with this…i told Roger that since this interview was already on his website and he had done similar with other magazines, that Burn readers would already have read these and could then base their questions on this previously digested material..evidently this was not the case….

    if Roger Ballen sells his prints or has his shows in various galleries and his published by the best publishers then of course he controls very carefully his image and his exposure…all of the artists i have ever met do exactly the same….Roger Ballen is no more exposed here on Burn than all the other photographers here..of course he is not “emerging”…but he might just have a very positive effect on an “emerging” photographer as might Webb or Gilden or whomever is here….if Roger sells a print because of being published here, how is that different than if Patricia Lay Dorsey or Chris Bickford or Tom Chambers sell a print because of exposure here or anywhere? my efforts here on Burn are to move everyone’s career or artistic intent forward…mixing and matching the iconic with the soon to be iconic is the whole point of Burn…

    ok, now i must go try to take a picture myself…check out now our David Bowen….and make the boy talk!!!

    cheers, respectfully, david

  125. My take that in a way Roger is a emerging photographer as many a photographer that takes the so called “traditional” course consider what he does is not photography ……… so to many it is emerging photography.

  126. thanks david.
    very humbled and pleased to finally be able to contribute.. the timing just worked out to show some derry work, and there is no more deserving subject than the good derrywains and their partying peace process ways..

    much respect and thanks to you n the anton in the japan.


  127. DAVID

    “i told Roger that since this interview was already on his website and he had done similar with other magazines, that Burn readers would already have read these and could then base their questions on this previously digested material..evidently this was not the case….”

    If this was the assumption, perhaps it would have helped to have posted a link to the interview in Roger’s introductory statement or as part of his bio.


  128. PATRICIA…

    you posted a link, his bio and website clearly in front of everyone…i do not know about you, actually yes i do know about you, but i sure as hell would do a modicum of research as you before commenting on someone’s work…only with this essay did i realize many just do not do it….but, yes next time i will spell it out even more clearly…thanks

    cheers, david

  129. David…

    …all the above could just be me fighting my own demons, since these are actual concerns (meaning, accessibility of the work, ethics, etc…) that I have about my own work too…

    but, even though it might seem otherwise in this virtual environment, I do not go around picking fights with people… I honestly felt that Roger’s comment was out of line and decided to challenge him.

  130. David, I would agree that one should do at least a modicum of research before asking a question, but commenting? I don’t see anything wrong with a person thinking independently before seeking out the viewpoints of others.

    And personally, Roger’s interview with Darius Himes did nothing whatsoever to make me appreciate the work any more than I did by looking at it with virgin eyes. As I mentioned above, I like and respect his art. Even were it not to my taste, I’m sure I would recognize it as being very good. But nothing about it makes me want to ask him any questions. Not about the work. What’s the symbolism of the chicken? I don’t want to know. And what did Himes get for asking that question? Roger doesn’t know what any of it means, either.

    On the other hand, I did find the shop talk mildly interesting. His dislike of cluttered images. His preference for black and white. His belief that all elements of a composition should be sharp. His mistaken contention that the human eye sees everything in focus. Arguing with myself here, but that’s the kind of info that actually can add something to my viewing experience. What are the results when those beliefs are put in practice? Still, I’d rather have that knowledge later than sooner and would feel perfectly justified in commenting without it.

    I’m not critical, at least not in a negative way, of how you’ve handled this, David. I’d hazard that 90 percent of the problems were due to some of your regular commenters poor questions and the other 9 percent to Roger perhaps not being the type who thrives on internet interactivity. But in the spirit of learning and going forward, it might be a good idea to give some thought to how similar situations could be better handled in the future. I’m not saying I have any better ideas. Err on the side of more information up front, I guess. But to some extent, peoples just gotta take their chances.

  131. Oh, and I’ve meant to add this in every comment I’ve made. I totally do not get the accusations that Roger is somehow exploiting his subjects. That just strikes me as ridiculous.

    But, unable to stop, it would have been nice if Roger would have addressed some of those questions/accusations in the same depth and tone that he answered Himes’s questions. Though I don’t share Thodoris’s concerns on Roger’s art, I too thought the tone, and in that one case the content, of Roger’s responses was questionable. It was certainly a contrast to the respectful way he answered Himes.

  132. Very creative, surrealistic photography… Some images definitely deserves to be the targets of collectors’ or galleries’ attention.

    Outside of photojournalism and documentary, nowadays, there is a sea of mediocre attempts to create art photography… despite the fact that a lot of them are being exhibited at quite respected galleries, most of them create just for themselves, close friends, relatives and nothing more… it’s very difficult medium, I would even say, it is more difficult and demanding than painting… but Roger Ballen is one of those very few who really deserves to be called art, surrealist Photographer… and this is without any pushing or promotions from friends gallerists…

    I have read some comments of “critics” here, and I didn’t really understood their point and those “exploitation” etc. In Roger’s work, there is the smallest possible exploitation as it’s possible in the medium of photography in general. However, we have to admit, 70% of world’s best photography is all about exploitation… in a sense. In general, the live of 90% of average people on this planet (regardless the continent or country) is all about being exploited…

  133. Roger

    back to the role of the animals in your work – I just watched the video with you and Andrew H. for the first time – it was great to hear you iterate what I suspected, that you very much enjoy working with the animals and that you are curious about them and that you engage in an interactive game with them…

    You mention that you are trying to deal with the issue of man/nature, and are trying to understand western society’s relationship with the same, and you point out the contradiction in society being okay with aisles of bloody red meat in the grocery store while worrying about the cat in the street: my 2 cents toward understanding – there are many of us in western society (myself included) who are not ‘okay’ with the aisles of meat, do not eat it unless there is right relationship with taking/honoring that life, which doesn’t involve shrinkwrap…my vegetarianism aside, my point is that although this ‘explosion’ that split man and animal may be a fact of modern society, the awareness of our oneness does persist in many of us. I appreciate that your work may help to stir others’ thoughts on man’s relationship with the natural world.

    Now I am curious as to whether you are at peace with the aisles of the bloody meat for your own sustenance?

  134. note..my use of ‘bloody’ was a reference to RB’s words in the interview, not as emphasis or for any proselytizing on my part

  135. i too just listened to the interview. what an interesting man, to hear him speak was both illuninating and inspiring.
    isn’t this about the struggles we all have but rarely talk about, how life/the world/humankind has that real darkness and desperation and cruelty that many of us try to avoid or ignore but is always there, how we’re all on the edge of madness. (sorry if i’m repeating what’s been said already).
    and it’s interesting how much there physically is in the pictures to look at considering how it seems to get down to the bare bones of it…it’s somehow minimal whilst still being involved.

    thought-provoking work.

  136. Roger,
    thank you for taking the time to answer the questions!

    It is a great honour to have Roger Ballen on burn!!! I feel it is an enrichment to have this diversity of artists here on burn and the debates that it creates.

    Okay, finally I have done some research. Watching the lensblog video was very helpful and very informative. Roger explained his way of working, how he got there and his idea behind it very well. Roger has a great way to explain himself “…this is exactly what the doctor ordered for you…” or his analogy with going down deep into the mind, or a mine “down, down, down…” After that I had no more questions, except about the drawings on the wall. Who did that?

    Still, I have to say that his imagery is not my cup of tea. I don’t want to go down, down, down in my darkest corners, but I highly respect Roger’s work. As Vicky says “thought-provoking work”. Too thought-provoking for me.

  137. OK, I can’t let go of this. I layed awake in the early hours last night with all this, and the imagry swirling aroung my head. I watched the interview and viewed the images several times.

    First, as I stated in my original post, this is important work, and extremely engaging and provocative.
    Ballen is clearly an original and a talented visionary. I will likely even order a book or two.

    I keep falling back on the comparison with Arbus, who’s work I find clearly exploitive, but at the same time engaging. My Arbus book is one that I take out and ponder perhaps more than any other book I own. At the same time, I hate it. The book is full of cheap shots. “looser at a diaper derby”, “Mexican dwarf”, “Trsnsvestie at her birthday party”, all shot with a brutal direct flash, and carefully and deliberatly depicting each subject as absolutely pathetic. Her subjects had no idea they were being had. It is like watching Jerry Springer.

    There is some of the same going on in Ballens work, though I would not call it exploitive. He uses the same clunky direct flash technique for effect, and we are surely looking at the dark side, but I do find humour and a strange sense of redemption in the photos.

    I want to say Roger, yes, I understand you are looking for the interior in these photos, but you seem oblivious to the fact that they are photographs, and as such they have an exterior which is at least as important. Photographs can function in many ways, but at the most basic level, they are documents. They are not just computer generated or images drawn with a pencil. In your interviw linked above, you want to pretend that the camera is just a tool to make images, and that there is no other context. This is dis-honest, and not how we view photographs.

    With regard to highly developed aesthetic psyches, I have found over the years, that those having a highly developed aesthetic psyche often seem to have a highly developed sense of confidence in one’s own particular vision. Some might say a highly developed ego. I suspect that this may be a necessary requirment to moving forward and creating powerful work.

    Finally, I’d like to just muse about the fact that existential angst seems to be a lot easier to sell and to be taken seriously as art in todays world. Imagry that celebrates life, and love, and joy are dismissed as sentimental fluff. While I appreciate and am drawn into the sort of imagry seen here, I am sorry for it. The deep and dark and ugly side of our humanity is certainly a fact. But so is the enlightened, loving, spiritual piece of us. Why photographers persist on concentrating on the dark side baffles me. It is too easy, too juvinile, too predictable.

    OK, it’s off my chest. I can sleep tonight.

    Love you all, you too Roger.

    Gordon L

  138. In your interview linked above, you want to pretend that the camera is just a tool to make images, and that there is no other context.
    I doubt if he is pretending he is using it as a tool, something that is quite prevalent within the art world. It seems that it is your desire for photography to remain within the context of what you perceive photography to be that comes into play here.

    This is dishonest, and not how we view photographs. Who is the we you are talking on behalf?

    It may be worth your while to read.. “The camera viewed Writings on Twentieth Century Photography” edited by Peninah R Petruck and yes it is about the likes of HCB, Adams, Lange, Friedlander, Arbus and Winogrand etc

  139. Gordon.

    “The deep and dark and ugly side of our humanity is certainly a fact. But so is the enlightened, loving, spiritual piece of us. Why photographers persist on concentrating on the dark side baffles me. It is too easy, too juvinile, too predictable.”

    Maybe some people concentrate on themselves, on how they see life, what they experience, their own personal struggles?
    Don’t you, even in your happiest moments, have that poignancy because you know it’s not going to last, that everything comes to an end? Or whilst you might be alright and celebrating, an awful lot of the world isn’t?
    How can the very essence of us, and the course of our lives, be juvenile?
    And making successful pictures isn’t easy whatever the intention or subject.

    ( and I’m rushing out here so may not have explained myself well at all)

  140. Gordon:

    “life, and love, and joy” “enlightened, loving, spiritual”

    “deep and dark and ugly”

    I hope you don’t mind if I pick your comment apart, but I noticed your combination of positive vs. negative feelings/facts, or better, what is for you positive and negative.

    I’m sure there could be another combination as well, with the same words, more than one. At least I would not associate the same way you do, and that’s perhaps a reason I look at Roger Ballen’s work in a different way.. don’t know.. trying to figure out things here, as I do know I don’t have a very developed aesthetic psyche, but I do reason more through my feelings than my brain…

  141. Imants

    I don’t need photography to be the center of the context of how we all view photographs, however, as they are photographs, that fact IS an important and elemental aspect of the context of how we view them. It is not something that we consciously choose. I realize that you have a similar point of view to Roger, and insist we remove the context of photography from our psyche when we view your work. (you in fact insist that your photographs are not photographs) But they are.

    To insist that we not view his work as photographs, as actual documents, is mis-leading and dodges the responsibility we owe to the work we put out there. It also ignores the glaring fact that if you removed the context that these are photograhs of real people in real situations by, for instance, creating similar hand-drawn pieces, they would completely loose their power and still be in boxes in Rogers basement.

    The last paragraph in my last post was only musing. I’m not suggesting one approach is really better than another, only regretting and pointing out the fact that it seems to be a too persistent theme at the expense of all the other colours in the spectrum of the human condition. I went a bit far suggesting it was juvinile (sorry), it is obviously an important place to explore. I was just thinking of all the dark symbols and skulls and screaming angst or rap angst that holds the attention of young people these days. Hopefully they will grow out of it. I am looking for the redemption of humanity I suppose, and see little of it in Art at the moment.

    I’m afraid I am not a fan of the “fine art photography scene” in general. Even the term is elitist. Do we speak of “fine art painters, sculptures, musicians etc? Silly.

  142. Gordon, see, I don’t take it as pouty, more as perhaps a tad unnerved.. and as a thought-provoking push.. :)

  143. If you were to learn that the works at hand were the creation of a psychopath who had killed many, would it affect the way you perceive this work at all? I suppose that if—before the revelation—you thought that this was the work of a visionary and a genius, you might continue thinking that (even though probably not out loud), but wouldn’t you associate different feelings and thoughts to the work than you did before?

    Probably the biggest factor that influences the meaning we attribute to any given work of art, comes from within… but, we are also easily manipulated by external factors—otherwise advertising wouldn’t be a zillion dollar business… so, here is another question: do you think you would associate the same deep and fundamental questions to this work if you had not find your way to it through Burn, or a major gallery, or a museum, or an exquisitely produced book, but instead you had found these prints in an unknown photographer’s yard sale?

    After all, our perceptions are input dependent…

    Also, regarding input… on the one hand I’m supposed to find my own way-in by looking these pictures as paintings—without asking questions about meaning, because the work is complete in the way it is presented—and on the other I’m provided with some fragmented information—such as the fact that these are real people in a real place—which attempts to manipulate my perception of what I see in the work… so, why does Roger gets to decide where to draw the line on how much info/context is enough? It seems to me that he’s willing to share only the parts of the context which he thinks can add mystery and provoke deeper questions…

    And why so many of you find the question of whether or not he’s exploiting those people so strange and incoherent? It only arises from the info he offered…

  144. Thodoris….yes.

    Imants. I know you likely associate yourself with the “fine” art photography world. I didn’t mean to offend you with my silly comment.

    I’d be interested in why exactly you insist that your own work is not photography when it seems obvious to me that it certainly is. What is it if it is not a photograph? I’m assuming they are not drawings or computer generated. Again, if you were to do a similar piece with a pencil or other medium, do you really think it would be viewed the same way?

  145. If you were to learn that the works at hand were the creation of a psychopath who had killed many, would it affect the way you perceive this work at all?

    So you can’t appreciate Gaugin’s paintings from Tahiti?

    And really, it’s not for you to ask us why we don’t think as you do. It’s for you to explain what you think and why. How do you define exploitative? How does Roger’s work fit that definition? Then I suspect it would be interesting to understand why just about every other human being can’t be accused of being exploitative under that same definition.

    I don’t dismiss every conceivable “what if Roger were Hitler reincarnated” scenario, but I think you are doing a very good job of illustrating why it’s best to keep one’s analysis focused on the artwork, not the artist.


    your points, as always, well taken in general…i do present photographers, all of them, the way they want to be presented…this is the way Roger wanted to go…simple, most recent work only…no voice over….bio just as he wanted it…i think what i was referring to were comments which clearly indicated no prior knowledge of Roger Ballen period…that to me is simply sloppy..the net can be blamed for a lot of sloppiness, but when a bio and website are right in front of the audience and the audience comments not knowing the photographer, and not wanting to find out first before asking a question of that photographer, who is taking the time to answer questions, who normally does not do this, just a bit disrespectful….and frankly embarrassing to me the guy who asked Roger to please jump in and join this audience…i am sure you may understand this….i knew Roger would be controversial…i am sure Roger loves to be controversial….i take pride in the audience here in general….i am proud of you Michael…but at times it was a bit like bringing in Andreas Segovia and then someone asking him why he didn’t play Rocky Top….

  147. Man, Gordon! Excuse me, but you do know the difference between a poem, a bestseller and a manual, sure you do! They have one thing in common: words. But are they the same thing? For sure not.

    Same with photographs: so many different ways to read them, to make them speak.. to listen to them..

    Ok, I’m done here :)

  148. David Alan

    I’m sorry that you are unhappy with the discussion here.

    I’ve re-read all the comments up until Rogers last post and can see anything out of line or terribly stupid. Jim was being Jim. If Ballen had spent any time on Burn to get his own ducks in a row he might have saved himself the trouble of exposing himself to the low level of aesthetic discussion around here.

    Ballen himself admits being a bit bewildered by his success. Perhaps the validation of being accepted into the fine art fold has gone to his head a bit. Egos are a bit like balloons, the more inflated they get, the thinner skinned and fragile they become.

  149. I doubt if you are sorry it seems that you wrote sorry and then continued to denigrate Roger’s character and his work. Pretty sad state of affairs as David states

  150. ….the next two continue the story within the same vein……… then it all branches out, somewhere it all flows into the aorta……………….. and

  151. Michael Webster…

    Regarding exploitation of the people in Roger’s photographs:

    a) He describes them as “disenfranchised, impoverished families, fugitives and witch doctors”.
    b) He calls them “collaborators” in the creation of his work.

    My interpretation:
    a) He calls them collaborators in an attempt to add legitimacy to him using them as props, which means that he is in fact exploiting them, or
    b) They did actively participate in the creating process of those pictures and therefore are entitled to some form of compensation; otherwise they are again being exploited.

    This, in a nutshell, is the logic behind my questioning of his work on this particular subject. And, if it’s ok to question the ethics of someone who makes a career photographing wars, natural disasters or the down-and-out as a documentarian/PJ why should a fine art photographer get a pass on it?

    And as a point of reference for anyone who cares, I also believe that documentarians should compensate their subjects one way or another too. Most of them will probably argue (and probably also believe it themselves) that the attention their pictures bring to the people and the issues they photograph can in itself be considered a form of compensation. I will counter argue that if there is measurable monetary gain from any picture where the main subject is the underprivileged—and which isn’t a braking news photo in a news paper but is exhibited in galleries and sells as a fine art print for large sums of money—then the photographer should share part of the net gain with his/hers subjects. If someone subscribes to this premise or not, bears a reflection on his/her sensibilities and personal code of ethics for me.

    Now, I too get older a day at a time and every now and then I do learn something new that shifts a bit my perception and ideas in one direction or another. Maybe, what I wrote above will be one of those things that in ten years I’ll look back to and say “what was I thinking?”… but, right here and now, this *is* what I think and these are my reasons.

    Is this clear enough?

    Also, please note that I did not bring up the issue of exploitation at first—even though it did cross my mind. I only started asking about it *after* Roger dismissed the whole notion as boring and irrelevant. Now, as David suggests, the answer to this question could already be out there in the www and I could find it myself if only I did my own research. But, if indeed there was a clear answer, wouldn’t have someone thrown it to my face to shut me up already?

  152. ¨They did actively participate in the creating process of those pictures and therefore are entitled to some form of compensation; otherwise they are again being exploited.¨

    quick.. take down the derry page..
    marty n jamie n gary smell profit..

  153. But, if indeed there was a clear answer, wouldn’t have someone thrown it to my face to shut me up already? No most are happy to give you the element of doubt
    ………… Thodoris better to remove the images containing people from your site, monetary gain or no gain they are there to showcase your talent……….. maybe these images will indirectly lead to a monetary gain in the future for you.
    If you decide to keep them better to pay them now than later, you might forget in 10 years time.

  154. Michael, do you think we should regulate art?
    We should lay down rules on acceptable practices (acceptable decided by who?)
    Maybe we could be registered with yearly reviews?
    What about minors, perhaps I should draw up a contract with my daughter?
    Maybe Ikea art is the way to go?
    Yes, I know I’m being extreme but…. :)

    None of us know what another brings to the subjects in their pictures, whether it’s monetary or hope or a lifting of spirits because someone is taking the time to listen and pay attention. There is more than one way to show appreciation and we don’t generally disclose our good deeds or charitable contributions and most of us at the very least try to do no harm.

    And aren’t all photographs collaborations between the subject and photographer?

    Maybe the whole discussion on exploitation should be taking place in another thread and not feel like a personal attack on a specific photographer.
    I don’t know….

  155. Thodoris they may not be downtrodden they may not even want to be there … still you should do the right thing and cough up the money, you are using them for your own gain.
    I have no problems, don’t wrestle with my conscience and don’t run the high moral ground that you play with at your leisure

  156. TT
    stick to your guns, I admire you for your consistent belief and understanding of the issues. We all have opinions and we can all agree to disagree if necessary, but it is important to have these debates to be able to get a rounded view of opinions. What is right for you might not be right for someone else.

    Imants you have a real knack for digging the dagger in:-) sometimes it is hilarious at others it seems spiteful.

    DAH, it is interesting that, through circumstance you were offline or chose to be offline, when the Ballen essay went up and the comments quickly developed into a slagging match. It must be intreaguing/inspiring/infuriating/frustrating having a bunch of readers who can so quickly let you down. Agreed the Ballen essay is controversial, so it will stir up emotions and it is a shame that the conversation took the tone it did. The reality is not everyone has the time to do background research on each essay that is published here and not everyone expects to do it, as mentioned above and in other posts, some viewers prefer not to read even the introduction/artists statement and prefer to take the picture at face value. Certainly my understanding of Ballen’s work became clearer during the conversation, sometimes it does help to have a short explanation of the artist method, progress and ideology. Jim is a case in point he very quickly jumped to his conclusion and was disgusted. I can understand your embarrassment at the uninformed questions but surely that is part of the educational process? I bet you get asked about f-stops, shutterspeeds etc. We as the viewing public, with little knowledge of Ballen or his work did not know he is reticent about interviews or public speaking, infact if people did click through to his site you could be mistaken for thinking that he is quite keen on having a visible public presence as his photography features well down the list on his site after books, catalogues,awards,films,exhibitions,museum collections,articles and finally image gallery.

    The visual mixture you present here is fascinating and joyfull with the juxtoposition of true documentary alongside more the more aesthetic.

    By the way I am throughly enjoying David B’s in depth conversation with the viewers here as yet another contrast and insight into how very different each person/emerging photgrapher/photographer/artist is. There is room for everyone.



  157. Vicky… you are totally right… these are not issues that have to do with Roger’s work exclusively… and no, I do not advocate that there should be laws determining percentages and what not…

  158. Thodoris is stating that Ballen exploits, all I stated is that it is no different to the images he uses to promote himself on the web as we all do. The difference is that I accept that I am party to a form of exploitation and don’t run a high moral ground and condemn others on this issue while clearly our sites contain all sorts of images that can be put up for scrutiny.

  159. Imants…
    the issue of them “not even want to be there” is a separate one, and warrants a full discussion on its own…

    Also, please don’t talk down to me with your “don’t wrestle with my conscience and don’t run the high moral ground that you play with at your leisure”… I’m not coming to this or any other issue/argument with closed eyes/ears/mind… if you have anything besides laconic riddles to offer, please do so… if you think my arguments are stupid, then by all means please destroy them… if you can manage that, then I will be forced to reshape my views…

  160. copying, and clinical study are not the same as being.
    dubuffet could never be wolfli or ramirez.
    Unlocking and mastering how it works and how to remake it is not the same as understanding why it was caused to be made in the first place.
    or what that costs.
    Bedlam is always fascinating from the gallery.

  161. Imants, you “accept you are party to a form of exploitation”. Does this lead to the ultimate conclusion that if you accept this fact, it means it is OK to do it. That is a pretty good way to absolve yourself of any responsibility in anything.

    TT chooses to have his view and how he would like to work, surely that is fine. He has his standards and moral guidelines. You have your camp set out and choose to use your photography in whichever way you choose. Please don’t let this discussion dissolve into a tit for tat.





  162. Please don’t let this discussion dissolve into a tit for tat……….. Ian so what’s with the spiteful implication that’s going to pretty low levels

  163. Agreed Immants, I shouldn’t have become embroiled with a master and I shall disist.

    This discussion and TT’s reasoned approach to it has been fascinating and it seems to be a perenial problem, documentary photography/exploitation/morality and it will go on ad neauseam . This case is interesting and has many crossovers in that the subjects are willing participants and it is not traditional PJ but at first glance could be.



  164. I doubt if you are sorry it seems that you wrote sorry and then continued to denigrate Roger’s character and his work. Pretty sad state of affairs as David states

    Is that directed at me, Imants? I never denigrated Roger’s character or his work. About his work, all I said was that I liked and respected it. About his character, the only thing I can think of that you might have taken awry is when I noted my impression that he’s not comfortable in the internet comments environment. It’s true I don’t think he handled his responses as well as he might have, but that’s certainly not an attack on character.

    Are you are getting me confused with the Thodoris, Gordon, Jim side? I’ve been plain as can be that I don’t see anything remotely exploitative about Roger’s work.

    No, I’m sorry that I failed to recognize the situation for what it was. I’m sorry I didn’t read his biography and see plain as fucking day that he’s from New York. I’m sorry that I so off-handedly broke a couple of my writing rules. And I’m sorry that I contributed to any embarrassment David might have felt.

    But denigrate his work and character. No, I didn’t do that.

  165. And Thodoris, since I see it’s getting a little personal, let me emphasize that I respect where you are coming from but simply do not see it in this case. That difference in viewpoint certainly doesn’t make me think ill of you in any way. I generally prefer people who err on the side of caring for others.

  166. Thodoris:

    “none of the people in the pictures on my site fit the underprivileged/down-and-out category though…”

    so who exactly falls into that category?

  167. Imants…

    I respectfully disagree with you on your first point… there are in fact degrees of exploitation—at least in the context of our discussion… e.g. making a thousand bucks from selling a few prints of the portrait of a musician, is not nearly the same as making dozens of thousands from selling a bunch of prints of portraits of homeless people… both the amount of how much we gain and the circumstances of the people we photograph play a part in whether, and to what degree, we exploit our subjects…

    but, I do agree on that we exploit ourselves in our work too… then again, we are the ones who collect any benefits for doing so too—be it money, attention, or whatever…

  168. Thodoris

    why do you believe that one set of creative collaborators should be compensated, because of their financial or life circumstance?

  169. Erica…

    If they were indeed his collaborators, then they should be compensated no matter what “their financial or life circumstance”… and in the light he paints them in, they don’t seem to have portfolios… so credit for the collaboration wouldn’t help them with securing commissions or grants…

    My comment about compensating the down-and-out had to do with when they are the subject matter and not when they are actual collaborators in a photographers work.

  170. Thodoris, hi…

    I think of much of the type of work I make as a collaboration between myself and the subject, and I was thinking of Ballen’s collaboration in a similar way. But the thought of compensating the people I work with would turn a corner on the nature of the work; the only time I would consider paying someone in this type of circumstance would be if the work were consciously shot for stock. Are you suggesting that all creative engagement should be a paid service? Each time I make a collaborative portrait I should pay the person I am photographing? My sensibilities tell me the opposite; that I should not attempt to make a creative/meaningful piece with anyone who requires payment. There are a few people who manage to pay their subjects and still make good work, like Phillip Toledano, but I think this is an exception to the norm.

    If someone is a more a “subject” of my photo (meaning roughly that I am not talking with them in advance of the image, I am not in their home, etc.) and the image has been taken without much participation from them (maybe aside from a nod or eye contact) and they are “down and out” or incredibly prosperous or anywhere in between, I am not going to give them payment either. Certainly there are instances of thanking someone, maybe with a photo or a meal, but they will not be “compensated.” There is no apt compensation as far as I know for this kind of work.

    You said “I also believe that documentarians should compensate their subjects” especially if after the fact the photographer reaps rewards from the images…I think there is a basic sense of goodness in most individuals doing doc / social doc work, but the thought of hunting down people you photographed and handing them money seems not only difficult pragmatically but feels to me almost like the idea of paying a news source. There has to be some integrity that is beyond financial accountability. There are other ways that a right minded person could give back – for example, I allowed my images from the Adult Home project to be used in a major court case which won the disenfranchised individuals in question housing new rights. Or maybe if you sell a piece that makes a lot of money you can put some of the proceeds toward the same cause you were trying to bring awareness to in the first place. But what if the work isn’t directly social awareness work? If I photograph a man crossing the street and the image sells in a gallery, you feel my ethical compass points south if I don’t find a way to pay that person?

  171. Michael my comment appears straight after Gordon’s so called sorry statement that writes about ego problems , there is no reference to you.

  172. I have never understood the pervasive and entrenched idea that photography is a moral act; and I understand even less the notion that, if it is a moral act, then giving money to the subject of a photo somehow squares the ethical balance sheet.

    Poor people — squatters, beggars, drifters, drug users — are fully capable of making their own decisions about whether to be photographed or to tell a photographer to get lost. The fact that they are poor makes them no less accountable for their actions, and a photographer is in no more or less a position to “take advantage of them” simply because he has a camera around his neck.

    Is a photographer’s ethical burden greater if he shoots with a Rolleiflex than with an iPhone? Do you owe someone more money the more pixels you capture (and therefore the more soul you steal)? So it’s okay to photograph homeless people if you are journalist but not if you are an artist? Does Sebastiao Salgado owe millions of dollars to the thousands of migrants he photographed, and is he an artist or journalist?

    It would be great if photography could be decoupled from sanctimony. Photography is a human activity like any other. It can be harmful, helpful, or neutral — or everything at once, just like driving a car. But the moral equation of photography and the endless handwringing about it (Jim’s favorite activity) are circular and shallow arguments.

    If you believe your photography is moral act, requiring you to adhere to certain codes that make you feel more comfortable, more power to you. But not everyone shares your belief.

  173. Erica, Preston… I’ll get back to you tomorrow… for the time being, please keep in mind that these are just my thoughts—just like you have yours… and since this is a more general discussion and not specific to the essay in this thread (and since Roger doesn’t seem to be coming back to participate) we could move it to “face” maybe… just a suggestion…
    ‘night from Cyprus…

  174. Thodoris, on the contrary, this discussion is a direct result of Roger’s piece. What a gift Roger and DAH have given us: Challenging visual ethics, sensibilities and “moral high-ground” is why BURN is such a rich dialog of intersecting opinions. We have been give the freedom to work this out in the shadow of Boarding House. Why waste it?

    Fortunately we will not form a consensus on Roger’s work, but some may find an adjusted point of view that broadens their understanding… of whatever. 252 comments + 1.

  175. Imants, sorry again, I really don’t want to get into a pissing match with you, but what you actually wrote is ” doubt if you are sorry it seems that you wrote sorry and then continued to denigrate Roger’s character and his work. Pretty sad state of affairs as David states”

    I merely wanted to point out that I certainly am not denegrating his work. I find it amazing and compelling. If you bother to read my posts, you will also see that I dis-agree with those who feel he is exploitive.

    I’m also sorry that you feel I denigrate and now, assasinate, his character. That Roger has a, healthy, ego, is evident from his artists’ statement, and he himself revealed his character in his last post. His dismissal of everyone who had commented as having an aesthetic psyche inferior to his was offensive, un-believably rude, and presumtuous. I normally try to be pretty polite and respectful but I was absolutely taken aback by his statement and feel that it invited a strong response. Good grief, (to quote Jim) what the hell kind of reaction would you expect from such a pompous, elitist statment?

  176. Character and one’s work go hand in hand, they are not separate entities. Roger had been hung, dried and quartered in regards to his character and work, plus the so called exploitation pretty early on in the responses. Don’t blame him for not bothering to come back now it is is over inflated ego as far as you are concerned aling with comments such as this about him by you “expect from such a pompous, elitist statment?”

  177. Gordon, have you considered that he could be right? If yes, where’s the problem? We all can go from inferior to less inferior, equal, even superior, if we are able, open and willing to learn.

    Preston, thank you, you’ve put in words what I was thinking but not able to write (second paragraph).

  178. GORDON…

    overall i think the discussion has been good…and you certainly have articulated your points well albeit i have not always agreed with your conclusions…but that is no matter…i have said dozens of times i do not see disagreeing as anything other than potentially good discussion…..i think perhaps i was referring to a very few and no point in naming names…in any case, you are a valued contributor…period…thanks

    i would say that i have never met an artist of any kind with any kind of reputation or who had made a “mark” who did not have a healthy ego…frankly, i think Roger was just being straightforward and honest, rather than beating around the bush…i am sorry you took offense with Roger’s words, but you probably would not like meeting most artists or hearing their real opinions and whom you probably respect by just knowing their work…i would bet on it

    just remember Frank Sinatra’s famous line… “i only owe my audience the songs”

  179. Hi David

    Good to hear your always wise and thoughtful words.

    Yes, I have met a number of famous and many not so famous artists over the years. Some of them, while they produced amazing stuff, were pompous buffoons. Others were warm and generous in spite of their status and talents.

    I have also spend a lot of time in the company of musicians. Chris Norman for example, considered one of the most gifted flute players in the world, manages to have a healthy ego, and yet is always inclusive, patient, and treats all players as equals. Occasionallly, you do run into an accomplished player who is aloof and obnoxious, but not often.

    Be careful down there

  180. Eva

    There is no such thing as a superior or inferior aesthetic psyche. Your psyche is your psyche. It’s not a contest.

    To be sure, as we are exposed to a wider variety of work, and ideas, (like here on burn) we may gain a new ability to appreciate things we might have missed before. That doesn’t invalidate your previous perceptions, or the perceptions of others with less experienced eyes. Powerful work is accessable to all, and can be appreciated on many levels.

    Look, listen, and learn Eva, but don’t let anyone tell you what to think, or how to react when you view their work.


  181. Disclaimer:
    Please keep in mind, that I do not claim to be an authority or the voice of god here… these are my current views, and they might fit with your own philosophy or not… I see debating as the best way to evaluate my own thoughts… it can either lead to the strengthening of my resolve, or show me the need to reevaluate my views…

    Ok… first of all, there are more than a couple of different issues that are intertwined in our discussion—e.g. people as our subject matter in general, down-and-out people as our subject matter specifically, collaboration in the making of our work, etc…

    Erica, Preston…

    Since your points of view are somewhat similar, I’ll try to answer to both of you at once—so that I don’t repeat myself… hope you don’t mind…

    Acquiring someone’s permission to take their picture (either with a simple nod, verbally, or by giving them a release to sign) does not constitute collaboration. Collaboration means that they participate actively in the creative process. For example, when two writers collaborate on a text, they share credit… being a source, and being a collaborator to a writer/journalist are two different things.

    It has mainly to do with the photographer’s motivations and intentions for choosing the “poor, squatters, beggars, drifters, drug users” as his/her subject in the first place… if it was some sort of voyeurism or if it was the idea that this could be a fast track for they careers to fame—and possibly money—then it’s by default exploitation. If they were driven by some sort of idealism—to bring attention to a social issue, to bring our dark side into the light, to show to all those suits in their AC offices what the real world out there looks like, etc, etc, etc…—then it’s only logic that they would want to share any gain

    As for photojournalists, most of the serious ones whose work is focused on the subjects we are discussing are almost always working in conjunction with local and/or international organizations that strive to make real and measurable difference… so, they can easily claim (and they rightly do so) that their work brings attention and helps the public to better understand the issues, *and* helps the organizations that can-do-something about these issues to raise considerable funds.

    As for the “so it’s okay to photograph homeless people if you are journalist but not if you are an artist?” bit, I never said or implied such a notion. If anything, I said was pretty much the opposite… that an artist who chooses to focus his/her work on (as per your example) the homeless should be held on the same level of accountability as is a journalist.

    I don’t know about Salgado, so I’ll use an example that I know of…
    I used to think of… McCurry and National Geographic made a small fortune out of his “Afghan Girl” picture… now, they might not have shared that money with her directly, but they did set up in 2002 the Afghan Girls Fund (Afghan Children’s Fun since 2008) which according to their site has raised more than a million up to now…

    And, photography *is* a moral act… especially when the subject matter is the grim side of humanity… when someone starts making money out of someone else’s misery, then if he/she has any moral values whatsoever *has* to share part of the gain with those poor, miserable, ” squatters, beggars, drifters, drug users”…

    Ok… that’s 585 words… took me more than 3 hours… enjoy…

  182. thodoris..

    i guess in the end it comes down to trust on the part of the viewer – that the ¨whoever¨ is doing the ¨right-on¨ by the ¨infront of the camera¨..
    it is certainly not black n white..

  183. Gordon, look, to me to admit I’m inferior (to some, to others not maybe) when it comes to the aesthetical psyche, or in any other matter where I know I’m on an inferior level of education, is absolutely no problem. I don’t take it as a personal offense, I ponder it, and then I might agree.. or not. I don’t FEEL inferior because of that, I might have my strenghts or knowledge in another place.

    And that has absolutely nothing to do with how I view work, in this case Ballen’s. My judgement (if any) or understanding isn’t based of what he thinks I am or not, but on what *I* think (about the work and about myself).

    Thodoris, my problem, if I can call it so, is about your distinction of “normal” vs. “down-and-out people”. By making a distinction you put them, in my eyes, on an inferior, or at least on a differnt level. Respect, for whoever is in front of our lenses, no matter who s/he is, is key. IMO.

  184. Thanks, Thodoris. I understand your points, but there is no financial incentive to photographing poor people — the poor are ignored, overlooked, and despised except when it’s photo contest time. The money is in photographing rich people — corporate tycoons, celebrities, politicians, the elite of all stripes.

    It’s nice that McCurry and NatGeo found Sharbat Gula twenty years later, but she refused their largesse, preferring privacy. When McCurry took the picture, I’m sure he didn’t think he was exploiting anyone, and he had no idea that the image would become iconic. And he if hadn’t been shooting for NatGeo, if he had been on assignment for a small newspaper, the image would not have had the currency it did.

    So what responsibility does the photographer have to the subject after he has snapped the picture? Again, it’s nice that the Afghan girl became a phenomenon. But what if the picture had appeared in NatGeo and someone had hunted her down and killed her?

    It’s hard to argue that photography is a moral act if it simply a financial transaction — paying your subjects because you have been paid. What if you don’t get paid? What if your check bounces?

    When people make the moral argument about a particular photographer or levy charges of exploitation, what they are often expressing is a discomfort with the apparent relationship between the photographer and his subjects. Roger Ballen’s photos might make some people uneasy, thinking them in poor taste or impolite. But the photos don’t change, and the act of taking them remains the same, even if the photographer contributes money to a related charity. Some photographers make a big show of their charitable efforts — Salgado comes to mind. Other photographers shoot with a sense of sympathy and connection — DAH comes to mind. Viewers respond to the photographer’s relationship with his material. If Salgado never gave a dime to charity, would he be an exploiter? What he if were a lousy photographer, shooting the same people, and he his images were never published and he never got paid? We he be an exploiter (or a failed exploiter)?

    It’s easy, in my view, to poke holes in the morality-money argument. The real question is the photographer’s relation with the material. Sometimes that relationship makes people feel gratified (James Nachtwey is a candidate for sainthood) or uneasy (Ballen’s art project with the homeless is exploitation). But the relationship is what it is. Some photographers are intentionally clear about it; others are intentionally vague. Others enjoy the discomfort of their viewers.

  185. Thodoris.
    The act of taking a picture is NOT a moral act, it is a mechanical action. The moral position,and lets get this straight- ALL MORAL POSITIONS ARE RELATIVE, is related much more to the ‘learned’ relative values of the viewer. Their position, makes a positive or negative judgement on the pictures position, and by inference, that of the photographer. This is a classic ‘I am right so you must be wrong’ mistake.
    But….the picture itself holds no such position, ‘it is not a pipe’ you might say.

  186. Eva…
    If from all the posts I’ve made the past few days what you got is that I think the “down-and-out” (a term I introduced as a shortcut for the “disenfranchised, impoverished families, fugitives and witch doctors”) as inferior human beings, then I don’t think there is anything I could say to change your mind.

    I disagree with you on this one… in your argument you take out of the equation the factor “photographer” and you deal with a photograph that exists on its own right… the motivations and the intentions of the photographer and the way he will approach his subject (frame, point of focus, etc…) are what introduces the moral factor in my argument… the viewer and his perception of the finished photograph is whole other discussion… respectfully…

  187. Thodoris, from the posts you’ve written I get the feeling that you think people should be threathed differently, based on what they are, which category they belong to (brrrr).. by doing that, saying that one category opposed to another should get paid, to me, you decide for them, putting them on a level of inferiority, as I think that everyone should decide for oneself, no matter if rich or poor, tall or short.. or whatever.. :)

  188. Preston,

    Thank goodness I know how you arrived at your well presented
    point of view. That liberal-arts education has served you
    well. If my child comes off of the mountain with as much
    common sense, I will not worry about my retirement.

    Please keep the ball in play. This is a very valuable
    dialog. My best to the Fam.

  189. GORDON…

    yes, of course…that is my experience as well…still, we must always separate the work from the personality…no matter which way it goes….


    good points all…


    this is good dialogue…i wish i could add more,but at this very moment i am preparing to photograph the elite of Rio…i am uncomfortable doing this…moral issues? no, simply physical comfort issues…those around me now are telling me i clean up well and look good in my tuxedo…wish i felt as good as i supposedly look…

    i try very hard in my work not to exploit individuals of any class or economic position…while i will be paid for the work i do tonight, i like to think of it as part of an exploration of this particular culture…having value in the long run…how i see people tonight in an elegant ballroom will be the same way i see people tomorrow in the less advantaged neighborhoods…since i tend to see the dignity of human nature most of the time, that is how i tend to photograph…even when i know that i could perhaps twist things a bit for a certain kind of image, it is just not in my personality to do it…so, i am stuck with who i am….

    ok, gotta go…

    cheers, david

  190. Some photographers don’t even bother to see people as people they are just objects or symbols and aee merely props to other concerns or issues. Advertisers are no different with stock images ie a red head, green shirt, yellow pants, purple shoes,not smiling are the requirements of the image.
    The argument goes to paying for objects, photographing trademarked signs etc

  191. David

    Yes, good diologue, I have learned something about myself here, and yes, I agree we must separate the work from the personality. I actually love Rogers’ work, and I’m grateful to him for sparking this discussion. I hope if he is still with us, that he is able to gain some insight from it too. I have a feeling that despite my too sensitive response, we would likely enjoy a beer and a chat together.

  192. When i first saw Roger Ballen’s work, a long time ago, in South Africa, i was shocked! i thought that RB had used his “position” with large companies to gain access to his subjects.
    i guess i reacted like the other critics of the time..Everybody hear thought RB hated “those” people! Shades of Shelby Lee Adams.

    Roger your work is simply great. Now that i live far away from my birthplace, with new thoughts and feelings, much different experiences, i truly appreciate your work. In someways it is ugly to the point of reversing white to black.It’s all a matter of exposure.The nightmarish dream concept is how i now see Africa and that particular milieu. The way you doggedly went on, adding to your score. Thank you for showing your art.

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