BOOK SA, The Citizen and The Citizen’s CitiVibe arts section are teaming up to bring you the newspaper’s complete “week in SA Lit” – all its SA-related book reviews and features, reproduced in their entirety on our network. We start off with this review by CitiVibe editor Bruce Dennill of Roger Ballen’s latest book of photographs.
Respected photographer Roger Ballen has taken more or less straight documentary photographs in the past, but he is probably best known for the work that intentionally, and confusingly, blurs the line between art and reality.
This book is, on one level, the supposed record of the time Ballen spent in a derelict building east of Johannesburg, which housed, in considerable squalor, a number of poor souls.
But as you become ever more aware that the elements of the photographs could simply not have existed spontaneously – that the scenes are carefully composed, down to the most intricate details – all your initial assessments of the collection go out of the window.
Does the boarding house in question even exist? If it doesn’t, does it matter? You’ll be annoyed at the ambiguity of it all, and you’ll go back and look at pictures, and feel more uncomfortable than you did the first time – and so it will go on.
Ask all the questions you like – you’re unlikely to get a satisfying answer. And yet, the fact that this situation exists is a mark of the book’s power.
Art is not about definitions, and the lack of these here, inversely, tells you that Ballen’s work bears further investigation.
– Bruce Dennill
- This review originally appeared in The Citizen. For more Citizen content on BOOK SA, click here
- Boarding House by Roger Ballen
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