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Interview: Roger Ballen and the Asylum of the Birds

Posted on 02 Apr 2019

Roger Ballen sat down with us to discuss his inspirations and the evolution of his aesthetic over the last 50 years.

The award-winning Roger Ballen’s monograph Asylum of the Birds  has been described by the British Journal of Photography as ‘provocative, graphic, and unlike anything else you’re likely to have seen’. We sat down with the acclaimed photographer to discuss his previously unpublished work, his inspirations and the evolution of his aesthetic over the last 50 years.


What was the inspiration behind Asylum of the Birds?

Birds have always inspired me. First of all, they can fly, and secondly, metaphorically, they link the heavens to the earth. Birds are incredibly beautiful; for me there is nothing more inspiring than waking up in the morning to their songs.

What can you tell us about the about the house in Johannesburg, ‘the location of which remains a guarded secret’?

During the time I was shooting for the Shadow Chamber project during 2001 to 2005, I met people who had spent time at the Asylum of the Birds house. Eventually someone brought me there. I will never forget that day, as I had never been in a place like this where birds, people, and other animals lived together free, inside, without cages.

'Five Hands' 2006 © Roger Ballen

Many photographers aim to capture what’s around them. What would you say you aim to capture with your work? Thoughts? Emotions? Your mind’s eye?

My aesthetic has evolved over the fifty years or more of photographing. Initially the images had a documentary aspect to them, but as time has passed the images have become primarily psychological statements. I believe my photographs have an uncanny ability to stick in the viewers’ subconscious mind, and for many they are hard to forget.

Can you tell us a little bit about your process of creating these photographs?

I travelled to the Asylum of the Birds House with a silent mind, as it was of no use to predict what might evolve once I arrived. It was a goal of the project to incorporate a bird/birds in any form in every photograph and therefore each time I visited the space I had to use my imagination to find new ways to express this theme. On many occasions, it literally might take thousands of steps, layer by layer to reach the point where I would take out my camera to attempt to capture an important moment.

'Alter Ego' 2010 © Roger Ballen

What would you say is your relationship with birds? Have they always held a place of significance with you?

I am really passionate about birds. They are mysterious, noble, and unique. It is almost impossible to guess what goes on in their minds, how they see and relate to the world around them. When I am in airports or feeling jet-lagged from long plane trips, I often state that I wish I was a bird.


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