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[Exclusive] Enter Roger Ballen's Dark Subconscious in 'Theatre of Apparitions'

A new animated short film made from Ballen's work captures the specters of life and death floating inside the photographer's mind.
Nightwalker, 2009 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen All images courtesy Thames and Hudson

This article contains some adult content.

Today Roger Ballen, the South African photographer and unofficial zef lord who helped cement Die Antwoord's dark aesthetic, premieres a ghastly new film exclusively on The Creators Project. Dozens of spirits fight, fuck, and feel their way across the screen in the Emma Calder and Ged Haney-directed short, which animates a series of photographs gathered in Ballen's upcoming book, Theatre of Apparitions. The film follows a wild dream in which legendary photographer's new photos come to life.


Many know Ballen from his music video for Die Antwoord's "I Fink U Freeky," or his highly psychological photography highlighting life in South Africa's dirty corners. Theatre of Apparitions is Ballen's even more psychological take on painting. He paints primal spirits with names like Nightwalker and Guardian Angel on illuminated glass, exclusive images of which we're also sharing today.

Ballen has been developing the technique for Theatre of Apparitions since he photographed a blacked-out window at a women's prison in 2004. In 2007 he began collaborating with then-assistant Marguerite Rossouw, whose extensive knowledge of painting is repsonsible for the spirits' vivid textures. He defines painting, however, as the first of his photography's many chemical and mechanical processes.

"The way the epoxies mixed together was the decisive moment in the photography," Ballen explains to The Creators Project. "That process was responsible for whether the picture ultimately worked." Without his decades of experience lighting and shooting with a camera, the otherworldly luminosity emnating from the spirits' pockmarked skin would not be possible.

Hold Up, 2011 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen

Guardian Angel, 2011 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen

Apparitions, as Ballen defines them, spring from human emotions we are encouraged to suppress—lust, aggression, loneliness, pain, and all things id. The theater is divided into seven "Acts" that organize these feelings, ranging from Fragmentation to Eros to Burlesque. Selected from over 700 shots captured over the course of six years, each image triggers a feeling that wouldn't normally survive conscious consideration.


"A man having sex with an angel, that's a very repressed image," Ballen says, describing one image from the new book. "An angel's a sign of innocence, in Jungian thought. Having sex with an angel is a deeper urge among people. It's something you couldn't dare mention to anybody except yourself, and you repress it. But then you see it in my work." Ballen's darkest imagery comes from an urge to bring hidden aspects of the psyche from the "deeper side" to the "skin side." It's the same cocktail of desire and repulsion the visual master channels in his collaborations with Die Antwoord.

Gulp, 2011 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen

It was Yolandi Visser and Ninja who first pushed Ballen into the moving image. "Since my video with Die Antwoord I try to make a movie for all my books. The book and the video images take you even further. One and one equals three and you're in a new reality." His video for Theatre of the Mind, out earlier this year, came off as a horror film, but Calder and Haney's work on Theatre of Apparitions feels more like Terry Gilliam's Monty Python work, but scarier.

Ballen has been sitting with Theatre of Apparitions for years, and his next step is even more introspective: a career-spanning tome called Ballenesque, tackling his ability to incorporate video, music, and—as in Theatre of Apparitions—painting, into a single unified aesthetic. Despite his jaunts into other mediums, Ballen is loyal to his original craft. "I'm happy to be a multidimensional artist but photography is the core of my work. I'm a master of photography, or at least black-and-white photography, and it's been my love all these years. There's no reason to give that up."


Triangulation, 2012 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen

Assembly, 2011 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen

Stare, 2008 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen.

Guardians, 2011 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen

Face Off, 2010 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen

Shadows and Strangers, 2010 Photo: Roger Ballen © 2016 Roger Ballen

Theatre of Apparitions is out through Thames and Hudson on September 22. See Roger Ballen's extensive body of work on his website.


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