This is one of a number of photographs in Tate’s collection from Roger Ballen’s series Platteland. Ballen worked on the series between 1986 and 1993. He began taking photographs while working as a geologist in South Africa, a job which took him to nearly every small town and village across the country. Initially focusing primarily on the buildings and architectural spaces of the places he visited (see his early series Dorps 1983–6, Tate P81267–P81286), in the late 1980s and early 1990s he began to focus instead on the inhabitants of South Africa, documenting poor white communities living on the fringes of society. While previously his photographs had adopted a more documentary style, with Platteland and his series Outland 1995–2000 (see Tate P20458–P20472 and P81287) his work became more staged and began to move into the realm of psychological portraiture.
In Platteland Ballen continued to focus on white people living in poverty, explaining in an interview that ‘the way these people were photographed … was a metaphor for what a lot of people were feeling … unsettled, alienated, and not able to cope in all sorts of ways’ (Ballen in Bowie 2007, accessed 26 May 2015). These photographs were taken during the height of apartheid and refer to the ‘poor white problem’ in South Africa, first identified in the late nineteenth century as white people became dispossessed of their land and driven into wage labour. This was also the focus of a study in 1932 which made recommendations about segregation that some have argued served as a blueprint for apartheid. In Platteland Ballen presented a group of people the apartheid government wished to hide because they represented the failures of the system. The series was received badly and Ballen recalls being arrested and receiving death threats after publishing Platteland (Bowie 2007, accessed 26 May 2015). Despite the specificity of the moment and place in which these photographs were taken, Ballen’s Platteland series transcends this context and addresses universal issues of economic deprivation and psychological anguish.
Ballen was born in New York. He first visited South Africa in the 1970s and has lived there ever since, building a career as one of the country’s best-known photographers. He works only in black and white and uses a square format camera, in keeping with his desire for all parts of the picture to have an equal purpose. The series Platteland was produced in an edition of thirty-five and Tate’s copies, acquired directly from the artist, are either modern prints or signed exhibition prints (Sergeant F de Bruin, Department of Prisons Employee, Orange Free State 1992, printed 2008, and Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal 1993, printed 2001).
Roger Ballen, Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa, London 1995.
Chas Bowie, ‘Interview: A Conversation with Roger Ballen’, Seesaw Magazine, 2007, http://www.seesawmagazine.com/ballenpages/balleninterview.html, accessed 26 May 2015.
September 2013, updated March 2015
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