A very interesting discussion has begun on Burn in relation to part of Roger Ballan's series the boarding house which the site is showcasing. It is very timely for me, as the question of truth and exploitation through photography has been weighing on my mind.

The issue seems to be that with Ballan's boarding house series, he seems to have posed his subjects ( squatters living in an abandonded building in south africa), to create his very dark primal works.

Ballan took the website answering questions from readers, one of which was mine.

My comment was this


I had the privilege of seeing your work in the “flesh” in your show at the Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne. Seeing it on screen now on further reminds me of how much more powerfull and raw it was in print. Nevertheless, wonderful to see more work.

The connection in these images to primal man comes through so strongly for me, and i also found that when looking at pieces from “Platteland”. A lot of people find your work incredibly hard to look at which I find interesting as your work is so human. The crowd at the gallery when I went to see your work seemed to linger in the room with images from “Platteland”, and seemed almost hesitant to enter the room the held “Boarding house”. How do you feel about people’s reaction to this work? I have my own suspicions as to why your later work seems harder for people to swallow but would love to hear your opinion.

to which Ballan replied

To MnM:

This recent work is more complex than my earlier work and consequently confuses people. It crosses a very subtle line between photography and art.

I don't think it is the complexity that scares people off. I find Ballans early work of poor Afrikans to be much harder to swallow than his later conceptual work. A person who is used to being photographed only on formal occasions ( as in 99% of the world) will never willingly allow themselves to be portrayed badly in a photo. Much less a photo taken by a stranger. Not to say I didn't enjoy it, but it was my voyeur and bojouis side that it undoubtedly satisfied on a subconscious level. Looking at his beautiful big prints of people who seemed to be caricatures of village idiots, I learned nothing of the person themselves, only of the world we live in.

In his later series, Ballan creates a bizzare world, complete with caveman like scribblings on the wall, grime, darkness and somewhat bizzarely, baby animals. When people appear in this work it is staged ( this is something Ballan has refused to confirm, but it has be be assumed given that he works with the same group of people time in time out.) In the frame these people( who are all squatters living in the building he uses) become props. The images say nothing about the people or their condition, but say a lot about Ballan's mind. The work is no longer documentary photography but art, the people, animals and drawings all forming part of a still life composition.

The economic and social status of the people in these iages is what has drawn so many burnians to cry "EXPLOITATION!" they argue these people are poor, Ballan makes money out of there misery, they are helpless against the big bad boujois artist from New york.

what is fundamentally wrong with this argument to me is it assumes that because these people are squatters they are idiots. The second these people agreed to be photographed ( i am not sure if Ballan pays them or not) they have become part of a collaboration. When he tells them where to stand, what to do, it becomes more like a fashion shoot- these people are aware of the camera and how they look. To assume they are helpless is to assume they are a) philistines who have no concept that there image is being used for high art and b) completely unaware of the world that surrounds them. i simply cannot make those sort of assumptions based on there economic circumstance. ( After all, many great artists have found themselves homeless and distitute at one point.)

of course the irony is, many people will sit an swallow a photo essay on dying children or prisioners, or the mentally ill completely, as the photographers are deemed to have the intention of doing good. is the intention enough to counteract the images in which a split second of pain, sickness or anger is presented as a whole story? As I said earlier, it is only really preformers and models who will happily be knowingly photographed in a way that makes them look anything less than perfect, the rest of us tidy our hair, broaden our smiles and stand still to create a perfect frozen moment.

It is something I struggle with in my own work. What I do is at it's core exploitative, I befreind someone, I show great interest in their lives, and I photograph what I deam important. What do they get out of it in the end? Although one part of me is proud that I chose not to exhibit shots of Tyler without his eyes, or his prosethics staring back from the table, I still secretly count them as my best images.

What does that say about me when all is said and done? i can detach my love for the 7 year old from my love of photography?

Morganna, who do you think you are?

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