Roger Ballen’s photographs are often described as ‘uncompromising’, ‘challenging’ or ‘distinct’, but these words and those that follow here sell them short. There’s a visceral timbre to the New York-born, Johannesburg-based artist’s work that can’t quite be described. For the sake of trying, though, you could say that it arrests, it disturbs, it burns into the mind’s eye; that over five decades of active practice, Ballen has developed a photographic style that peers through cracks in the veneer of social acceptability to plumb the murkiest depths of the human psyche.
Roger the Rat, a book of photographs Published by Hatje Cantz, 2020, taken between 2015 and 2020, is the most recent missive from the Ballenesque universe. Chronicling the life of an underworld-dwelling rat-human-hybrid character, the story unfolds as a wryly bleak, precisely choreographed psychodrama. It flits between vignettes you could almost call sweet Roger the Rat dancing and drinking with his mannequin lovers and friends, for example and scenes that conjure a sense of abject horror images of the torture and dismemberment of his plastic companions, made all the more grisly for the comically creepy, toothy grin of the mask Roger the Rat wears throughout.
Granted, what the book confronts you with is not easy to digest, but on seeing it, it’s impossible to turn away from. It’s the same thing that allows “a soldier to serve cake to their children at a birthday party one day, and then get in a plane and bomb a village the next” without batting an eyelid, Ballen says, an intractable feature of the human condition that society urges us to suppress. It’s the primordial, animal self that has lived within us, and shaped how we live, since the dawn of our kind the shadow self that lives on the other side of the mind
Let’s start with rats. They’ve often featured in your work. What draws you to them?
There are two things: one’s from a metaphorical perspective, the other’s more practical, or nature-informed. The rat has always been thought of as something that carries disease something that’s dirty, and that should be avoided. In a way, it’s seen as an archetype of evil. But it is, ultimately, just a part of nature: it’s not good or bad, it’s just out there doing whatever it’s programmed by nature to do. So it was interesting for me to study rats photographically, to try to better understand what makes them special, and from late 2013 to about 2017, I spent like four and a half years only photographing live rats. So I must say, I’m a rat specialist.
The second thing is that rats are super intelligent. If you were to weigh a rat’s brain, in relationship to, an equal sized animal brain, the rat’s intelligence would be much greater. They’re also so adaptable. You find them in any climate or context in the Arctic, in the tropics, in garbage dumps, in the wild and they breed and they breed and they breed. It’s an animal that’s super adaptable, that exists all over the world, and yet, in the Western World at least, is seen as a sign of evil and chaos. It’s interesting how we project these value judgments onto them. Their intelligence is often perceived as malicious.
That’s a sign of our repression. Western culture prefers things shiny, new, innovated. It likes to have an optimistic, repressed view of life. It Klings to Hollywood films because they always end in a positive way. The rat, for whatever historical reasons, has come to symbolise the diametric opposite to that. The rat symbolizes subconscious repression.
There’s a line you/Roger write in Roger the Rat’s preface that really seems to speak to that: “My house has no ad- dress. It is impossible to find unless you are a rat. It is in the underworld, a place of my rat mind, my human mind, your mind.” Could you tell me a little about what you’re getting at there?
Well, this rat lives in the underworld and, metaphorically speaking, what is the underworld to the human mind? It’s the subconscious: the dark side, the unresolved side, the side that, ultimately, reveals itself in violence and anger. And in positive things, too. But it’s the side that society wants to keep repressed. This is the underworld that Roger lives
in a metaphorical model of the subconscious mind and Roger symbolises this ‘animal’ side. It’s not good or bad, it’s more about this instinctual side he’s doing things that an animal might do because there are no social mores to stop it.
Roger is, of course, a fictional character. Nonetheless, there’s a certain closeness, consistency and rigour to the photographs that give them an almost documentary-like feel.
That’s a very important point, and it’s one of the reasons my pictures are powerful and people don’t forget them. They challenge the state of reality, of identity, of what’s possible. If it’s ‘just documentary’, you say to yourself: “I’ve seen much worse.I see it every day on TV!” And if it’s a little bit too fictional, it’s ‘”just another cartoon”. I think I just understand the line well. Some of the pictures do this better than others, of course, but after fifty-something years of working in this field, I’ve reached a point of being able to get on this line where there’s an enigma in the picture. Something that ultimately creates an imbalance within the viewer’s state of mind and challenges them men- tally and psychologically. This is what art should be doing, in my personal opinion.
You took the photographs in the book over the course of five years. How did your person- al relationship to, and under- standing of, Roger the Rat shift over that period of time?
Well, it’s not like writing a novel. Each picture comes on a separate day. You go into the room, you have the mask, you put it on a person’s head, and they act out something. In the beginning, what he was doing was more humorous, I think. And then the things Roger the Rat was doing became more socially unacceptable as time progressed. But I think that throughout the whole series, if you look at his grin, that’s the whole thing that makes this character. He’s laughing in an almost evil way, saying: “I don’t care what I do, I want to do things that other people can’t do, and upset you. I think it’s funny. I’m turning my back on society’s morality.” It’s always interesting when you talk about photography, though. It’s a still moment that you’re looking at, but the reality of that moment is faster than you can blink it’s a tiny moment within the realm of life. And that’s the skill you have to capture that moment when it becomes symbolic and has a life to it. That’s what I’m always trying to do.
You’ve also created a like-titled 25-minute film, which is yet to be released. I imagine that entailed a different approach. How would you describe the relationship between the book’s images and the film?
Well, in the film, Roger the Rat is revealed by a very great mime actor, who reveals this character in silence as a photograph.The main difference with the film, though, is that it’s a flow of ideas that are linked to each other. If they didn’t flow into each other, there’d be no understanding of what the film was about. With a film, the narrative has to be a lot more logical and interpretable. Whereas in photography, or at least in my photography, it could be seen as more spontaneous less planned. There’s no verbalisable narrative with what I do. In fact, I’ve always said that if I can interpret my pictures very easily it’s a bad photograph.