"Look in the mirror and you say, 'That’s me!'—but that’s mirror reality. It’s not necessarily the way you look; it’s the way you look through a mirror and the way you comprehend it. Who says that’s you?"
For the first time in the half century Roger Ballen has been making photographs, he’s allowing his audience an intimate walk through his world with him. The new documentary short “Asylum of the Birds,” directed by Ben Crossman, depicts the people and places that are the subject matter of his newly released book, Asylum of the Birds, published by Thames & Hudson. It follows Roger into a bizarre compound outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, where refugees and escaped mental patients live together with birds and rats. This film contains images that will be hard for you to forget.
VICE: How do you see your new film interacting with your photographs? Did it change your process to have someone filming while you were taking the pictures?
Roger Ballen: No, I’ve been doing this so long. I’ve been doing photos for like 50 years now. I remember once there was a tornado, and I still took my photo. So there’s not very much that distracts me; I just focus on what I do.
Wait, can you explain more about the tornado?
I remember there was a tornado that blew the roof off, and I still keep taking my pictures.
As the roof was being ripped off of the building you were in?
Yes, I just kept photographing; it didn’t distract me. You have to have an extreme sense of concentration and focus, because there’s a lot going on in these places and it can be very distracting and very difficult to focus and to put complex symbols together and make a statement that has coherency to it. You have to be able to think on multidimensional levels, and get work done in environments that are potentially very distracting and confusing.
The environment in the asylum looks very confusing. How did these people end up there?
They come from various places. Some are refugees from places like Somalia or Congo. Some are runaways from prisons and insane asylums. Some are women with children who don’t have a place to go. Others are drifters who come in one night and leave the next day. So it’s a mixture of society, all walks of life in South Africa. They are people who are living on the fringe who are not able to adjust to a so-called normal lifestyle.
Do you connect with that?
If I couldn’t connect with that I wouldn’t be able to take any photos. I’ve been with this stuff for 30–40 years. I’m not a socio-political photographer, though; I’m really a psychologically based photographer. My imagery is about making psychological statements about the human condition, about the human mind. They are way of expressing my relationship to myself. These pictures are really diaries of my own engagement with myself, in another place.
Alter Ego, 2010. ©Roger Ballen
So you use these spaces kind of like a studio. You’ve got a studio practice going on.
I guess you might call it a living studio. When you go outside in New York City with a camera, New York City is the studio. With a camera, you have a thing around your neck, and you put to your head, and you decide what to photograph on the stage.
What draws you to birds as a subject?
Most people are drawn to birds because they have archetypal meanings to them. These meanings are deeply embedded in the human mind. You can see that in the Bible and in Greek mythology. People are drawn to birds because they can lift off into the air; they can fly and get above things. In mythology, they’re the animal that links the heavens to the earth. So they’re very much an animal of beauty and mystery. Birds carry that symbolism. And then when these birds come into contact with this so called “Roger Ballen world,” the metaphors for the book are created, and the metaphors for the film are created.
Do you think the photos are documentary in any way? Is this a document of life in South Africa?
There’s nothing documentary about anything. Everything is subjective in the way that we live. The more you live and the more you think about things, you realize there is really very little objectivity about anything. Look in the mirror and you say, “That’s me!”—but that’s mirror reality. It’s not necessarily the way you look; it’s the way you look through a mirror and the way you comprehend it. Who says that’s you? So you really have to deal with what’s in front of you. What you’re seeing in my photographs are two things: You’re seeing camera reality, and then you’re seeing the so-called reality transformed through my brain. That’s all you’re seeing. There’s nothing more, nothing less. It’s a documentary of Roger Ballen. Of Roger Ballen’s relationship to his world out there.
What was it like working with Ben Crossman on the film? Because it really looks like your vision, but there’s someone else behind the camera in this instance.
Ben is a very, very creative person. He did a good job of transforming my vision through the camera and through the editing and directing. He totally empathized with my vision and my world.
He worked with the Die Antwoord group for many years, especially in the early days. I met him when I made “I Fink U Freaky.” I realized this was the type of guy I’d like to work with in the future. He’s half my age. I’m 64, and he’s in his early 30s. He’s got a good dynamic, a good head, very focused. For years I’ve tried to find a person to work with on that level, and it just didn’t happen. So it was really good to work with Ben.
In the film you say the places you photograph are not safe, so I’m interested in what it’s like bringing a film crew with you.
There wasn’t any crew, just the two of us. There are certain people who can handle these types of places, and other people who can’t. He’s had a lot of experience working in places like these over the years.
What role does your photographing these people play in their daily lives? It seems like they enjoy performing for you.
Some of these people I’ve known and kept in contact with for nearly 25 years now. It’s been a real relationship with some of the people I work with. Some of my greatest photographs I took the first time I met somebody, and some of the people I’ve known for 20 years and never got a good photograph. I never push things. If somebody doesn’t want to do something I don’t say ask them to do it. My most recent photographs don’t involve so many faces in the pictures: It’s just a body, a foot, a hand, a back of the head. I’m not really doing portraiture anymore. In this work, the people are acting in some way. I think they enjoy it a lot. It breaks their routine; they get some attention—different than sitting around all day looking at the flies buzz by their head.
How do you feel about becoming the subject yourself in this film?
The thing is is that I’ve had so much media attention over the last 20 years or so, it has no effect on me. I see it as my job to explain what I’m doing, to have people better understand what I’m doing, to try to get them to relate to the picture.
I don’t take pictures for other people. I’ve only done this for 50 years only for one person—that Roger Ballen. So I can’t figure out what other people will do or think of feel.
I get a lot of feedback, like, “The pictures are great; they’ve changed my idea of photography,” or “They’re dark, disturbing; I can’t sleep.” People sometimes ask me if the pictures disturb me, and I say no. They never disturb me. They are the most exhilarating thing I can do, because they bring me into touch with parts of myself that are enigmatic. They open fragments of who I am to myself, whoever that is. They’re cathartic. When people say the pictures are dark, it’s really saying they’re scared of themselves.
Below are photographs from Roger Ballen’s new book, Asylum of the Birds, published by Thames & Hudson.
Caged, 2011. ©Roger Ballen
Ethereal, 2011. ©Roger Ballen
Five Hands, 2006. ©Roger Ballen
Headless, 2006. ©Roger Ballen
Transformation, 2004. ©Roger Ballen
Liberation, 2011. ©Roger Ballen
Ritual, 2011. ©Roger Ballen
Take Off, 2012. ©Roger Ballen
Matthew Leifheit is photo editor of VICE. Follow him on Twitter.