Roger Ballen's Asylum of the Birds

The photographer and Die Antwoord director takes a dark trip into the dank outsider backwaters of Johannesburg

Directing Die Antwoord’s starkly unhinged video for “I FINK U FREEKY” brought the American-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen's intense work to a wider audience. Now he's topped that with his latest photo series, Asylum of the Birds, the subjects of which could slot right into the sewer-dwelling New Yorkers of Marc Singer's Dark Days. Squatter camps, mine dumps, and abandoned fields surround a destitute suburb of Johannesburg that contains the titular location, an asylum for squatters and the ever-present birds. Graffiti and filth add grit to Ballen's photos of its residents, which are more a cue for self-reflection than discomfiting confrontation. The above short documentary by Ben Jay Crossman puts Ballen's visual disturbia into moving image – it's haunting, graphic and literally eye-popping. That his images can be off-putting to some is just due to a lack of understanding on the part of the viewer. The pictures are simply a dose of "medicine that they really need," as he says. "They don’t really want to take the medicine."

Dazed Digital: What was the idea behind the whole project?

Roger Ballen: It’s documenting how I get there, why I get there and documenting me in this place, and trying to expand the reality or extend the reality. My pictures have become more and more surreal over the last ten years, so this project has extended the direction of the work. Pictures that are always straddling the line between fictional and documentational. The pictures are on that line and you’re not really clear whether I’ve documented something or whether I’ve transformed something. If they’re a product of my imagination or a product of the subject's theatre, it’s very hard to tell.

DD: A lot of these subjects seem like they were quite transient, I wasn’t sure if they belonged there or if they lived there.

Roger Ballen: Yeah they lived there. These are the type of people that I’ve been working with again a lot over the last thirty years. I’m always working with people who are on the margins, and so in this project I worked in this house in Johannesburg where there were a lot of animals living with the people. The guy who owned the house didn’t want the animals caged so they let the animals stay in the house and the people came from different places. They came from Somalia as refugees sometimes, or they were running away from the police. Sometimes they were people who had escaped insane asylums or sometimes they were women who were running away from their husbands, or sometimes they had no money and nowhere to stay so sometimes they stayed for one night, sometimes some of the people there stayed for the whole time.

DD: When did you discover this place and meet the people?

Roger Ballen: I discovered it in 2003 when I was working on the Shadow Chamber project, shooting people in the shadow chambers around this place that I went and visited. It was quite a revelation – something I didn’t forget, something I wanted to come back to. But I then started taking a lot of pictures of birds in the Boarding House series, but this came after the Shadow Chamber book. I thought I would like to do a book project about this on birds then I started to get involved with birds.

“I know you can’t just jump into a place. You have to feel your way through to get people to trust you. Because these are socially difficult places if you don’t do these things properly. So many people get killed in these places”

DD: What’s the fascination with birds?

Roger Ballen: Birds are like the archetypal animal, you know? Before even the Bible, maybe during Greek mythology, the birds were a symbol of beauty. We all would like to be a bird, especially while we are on airplanes – to fly and to go above everything. So the bird is a symbol of beauty, it’s a heavenly figure. It’s a symbol of peace, maybe.

DD: When you were shooting for this book, what kind of people did you meet and was it difficult getting to know them right away?

Roger Ballen: You know I have a way with people. I've been doing this for so long now that I can relate to people on this level. I know you can’t just jump into a place. You have to feel your way through to get people to trust you. Because these are socially difficult places if you don’t do these things properly. So many people get killed in these places. In the last 20 years people are physically murdered and you have to just know how to deal with people. I’m not saying I’m the worlds greatest diplomat or anything, you know if you go in with a lot of expensive camera equipment what are you going to do if people jump on you? Nothing. You have to develop a trust, develop a relationship. And then you know have the respect of the people you work with. It’s always a two-way street, it’s always the way it’s been with me.

DD: What would you say if someone were to say these images are disturbing?

Roger Ballen: Well, usually when someone says these are disturbing it means they are scared of a part of themselves, that’s all. Look at the TV. A good example when you look at supermarkets, all that dead, bloody meat sitting there, it has no effect on people. It’s not disturbing because you are used to it. Maybe you can get used to anything. So I think my photographs come at people from an angle, which they haven’t really come to. Something part of themselves maybe they aren’t familiar with.

DD: Are you ever not okay with people getting it wrong?

Roger Ballen: Yeah, you know when I was younger I was a little bit more affected by this. Now I’m not. The work has become much more complex and it’s not easy. It’s very actually difficult to write about this work in any real way. This type of work is very difficult for people to express what they really feel about it and put it into some context because I think the imagery is quite unique and they haven’t actually confronted it in many ways.

DD: Would say it’s quite confrontational?

Roger Ballen: Yeah, it is confrontational because it gets into their belly and it doesn’t want to go. I think that’s the thing they needed. It’s a medicine that they really need. They don’t really want to take the medicine.

DD: Have the inhabitants of the Asylum of the Birds seen the work afterwards?

Roger Ballen: Oh yeah, all of them.

DD: What did they think?

Roger Ballen: They think it’s funny. I live in Africa, which isn’t like New York or California. A lot of people aren’t taking pictures or looking at pictures or talking about pictures. It’s a different environment here. The middle class, the up-and-coming class, they’re all involved in Apple and Instagram. But a large per cent of the population here is trying to find something to fill their stomachs. Not worrying about what the pictures mean or what they say. They have no idea what art is and so that’s the world of Africa in terms of art. It’s not really a profession over here. It’s not even a luxury – most people don’t even have any contact with it you know the more basics things before to contend with before you try to start to figure out how you express yourself that really doesn’t come into most people’s lives.

DD: How was it working with Die Antwoord?

Roger Ballen: It was good – again, you see that worked well because they really they said the book I did (I did a book with them last year) was their focus for years and years and years. They really empathise with my aesthetic and understood it on many levels so we worked very smoothly together because I understood where my strengths were and I understood where theirs were. So we were able to work smoothly together and create a very holistic movie.

I think they’re quite disciplined in their own way and focused on what they’re doing. It’s really hard to know where there has been a point in my photography over the years where there’s insanity and where does that lead to? Probably to nowhere.

Asylum of the Birds by Roger Ballen is published by Thames & Hudson