This is Not a Church, the Art of Roger Ballen

When Mitch and I were in Copenhagen, we came across a church building with a large vertical banner that read, "This is Not a Church." So, naturally, we went inside.

It was an art gallery featuring the American photographer, Roger Ballen. It cost some money to get in, but it was in Danish krone so nobody could tell how much.

Ballen has lived in Johannesburg since the 1970s, and has taken pictures of some of the poverty there. His early work has more of a documentary feel, something like what you'd find in National Geographic. Of those early photographs, this one stood out to me. 

Man Shaving on a Verandah
I love this type of photo. I grew up tracing ones like it in my parents's National Geographic coffee-table books. In such photographs, the dirt makes the walls more interesting. The weathered skin and hardened eyes of the subjects tell stories of suffering. There's more individuality in photos like that than in ones of boring rich people. 

The problem is that there's a voyeurism to taking or looking at these photos. I, with money, am able to look into your little-money life through this fancy coffee table book. It's an issue. Imaginary tourism to underprivileged classes. 

Ballen's later work does something about this. 

Sick Room

He fictionalizes the work. He sets up scenes. He lets the subjects become actors. He turns the photo around to where the joke is on the audience.

The photos are much more uncomfortable - or even scary - to look at. When I was looking at them, I felt like Ballen was solving something. And while the images were interesting and even beautiful, I felt, rightly, that I would not like to live there.

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