The New York born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen’s breakthrough came when he published “Outland” in 2001. The book made a splash, sold out quickly, and is now being republished by Phaidon. Ballen was already an established photographer when he produced a video I Fink U Freeky for Die Antwoord in 2012. Most recently, his work has been painted onto the backs of leather jackets for the latest Comme des Garcons Homme Plus collection.
Outland depicts the outcasts of the post-apartheid South African society in and around Johannesburg. Viewed more generally, it poses a question, what is man? Is a human being that is part of a subhuman world a man, or is he simply human refuse? If a man possesses no dignity, if he has been lowered from life to mere existence, is he still a man? What goes through the heads of subjects like a security guard posing with a deranged smile as he’s choking a puppy?
Ballen has stated that he feels affinity with the playwright Samuel Beckett, and this can easily be seen from his photos that revel in the absurdity of human existence. Ballen’s subjects are the dregs of society that dare the viewer to look and ask, how much exactly has progress achieved?
Ballen has often been compared to Diane Arbus, but he is much closer to someone like Boris Mikhailov. It is hard to look at these images and not feel despondent. Even though some images are staged, they don’t look as though Ballen is trying to scandalize the viewer on purpose or to exploit the misery of his subjects. Partly it’s because the images are not aestheticized, and partly it’s because there are no scenes of violence in these images (except an occasional one done to kittens). But maybe it’s mostly because his subjects don’t look particularly miserable. This is their life – no more, no less.
The 2nd edition, which stands at 156 pages, comes expanded with forty new photographs, doubling the count of the original tome, and an essay by Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney Museum’s photography curator, which you can safely skip.
Ballen has also produced a video to coincide with the new edition of the book that gives you a further glimpse into some of the characters of his book.