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Two photographers who capture the hidden side of the human face


Roger Ballen and Jacques Sonk, whose works are exhibited at the Castilla y León Photography Festival, look at the figure of the 'outsider' from different perspectives

Sergeant F. de Bruin


Employee of the Department of Prisons.

Orange Free State

is one of the best-known portraits in the work of Roger Ballen (New York, 1950).

It belongs to the

Platteland series (1986-93)

, taken by the photographer, who lives in South Africa, with the purpose of making visible a part of the white and rural population that lived on the margins, oblivious to the privileges offered by Apartheid.

The huge and disproportionate features of the face of this official with a sad doggy look seem not to correspond to his small body, nor to the image of an executor of white supremacy.

They immediately grab the viewer's attention.

However, the photographer assures that it was the twisted wire (one of the author's obsessions), which hangs behind him, at the level of the subject's eyes and ears, that most attracted his gaze.

He says he is not interested in characters that only catch his attention visually,

'Antwerp', 1981. Jacques Sonck (Courtesy Gallery FIFTY ONE)

'Deinze', 1983. Jacques Sonck (Courtesy Gallery FIFTY ONE)

Image of the exhibition 'Portraits', by Jacques Sonck in the exhibition hall of Unicaja, Palencia.

Alice Brazzit (Fifcyl)

'Ghent', 1994. Jacques Sonck (Courtesy Gallery FIFTY ONE)

Kortrijk, 1989. Jacques Sonck (Courtesy Gallery FIFTY ONE)

'Study', 1993. Jacques Sonck (Courtesy Gallery FIFTY ONE)

Image of the exhibition 'The world according to Roger Ballen', in the exhibition hall of Unicaja, Palencia.

Alice Brazzit (Fifcyl)

'Twisted Wires', 2001. ROGER BALLEN

'Cat Hunting', 1998. ROGER BALLEN

'Discussion', 2018. ROGER BALLEN

'Sergeant F. de Bruin.

Employee of the Department of Prisons.

Free State of Orange'ROGER BALLEN

'Mimicry', 2005. ROGER BALLEN

Geologist and psychologist by training, after five decades of experience, Ballen describes himself as a psychological and existential photographer.

His international fame came through a disturbing work whose protagonists are often the



the South African society.

People living in poverty, many of them disabled or mentally unstable, generally white, and often portrayed in the dilapidated dwellings they inhabit, where they act in defiance of common sense.

A work that over time has been charged with metaphors and theatricality, leaving aside the human figure to incorporate animals, (which remind us that we are just another species on Earth), drawings and sculptures, which offer a narrative much more complex and abstract that sometimes blurs the border between reality and fiction.

“My photography is not about the people or the places that appear in it.

They do not document a political or social reality.

It is essentially a psychological experience”, affirms the photographer during a videoconference.

The world according to Roger Ballen


Composed of 50 photographs belonging to his most representative series, six themes prevail that have helped shape the author's gaze (wires, people, animals, the real versus the unreal, drawings and color). All of this is inscribed in a aesthetics that he himself has come to call whale-


Within the same room, and also as part of the festival, is the work of Jacques Sonck (1949, Ghent, Belgium).

Under the title of



40 photographs belonging to a single ongoing series, begun in the seventies, are shown.

"I'm interested in people who stand out visually," says the Belgian photographer during a telephone conversation.

“Anyone who stands out from the norm in his appearance.

Of any age, gender and race.

Marginal or not.

In principle I have a clear vision of what I'm after, but he let me surprise.

Actually I look for the strangeness.

And I emphasize it within a frame.”

'Deinze', 1983. Jacques Sonck (Courtesy Gallery FIFTY ONE)

If Ballen and Sonck share something, it is their early interest in photography.

The American grew up among the photographs of the great photojournalists of the time that hung on the walls of his house.

His mother worked for Magnum and often rubbed shoulders with Cartier-Bresson and Kertész.

Interest in the photographic medium also arose early for the Belgian photographer;

At twelve years old he was enthralled by the beauty of the cameras displayed in the window of a shopping center.

If Ballen describes his style as “documentary fiction”, Sonck defines himself as “a documentary portrait photographer”.

Thus, he goes out into the streets in search of models whom he never asks his name (Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels are usually the centers of action for him).

Some will pose spontaneously,

after looking for a neutral background that decontextualizes the subject and emphasizes its peculiarity.

Others will go to the photographer's studio, where the models fall under his control.

By using spotlights he will sculpt his features.

In both situations, his gaze remains neutral and distant.

Without ridicule, but also without melancholy.

"Without making any judgement," says the author, contravening what Richard Avedon said in reference to the art of portraiture: "The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph, it ceases to be a fact and becomes an opinion. ”.

Sometimes Sonck focuses on a single detail, it could be his model's stockings or arm.

Sessions typically last no more than 15 minutes.

The photographs of him lack a title, they are accompanied only by the date and the place where they were shot.

"They don't need a lot of information," he warns.

“I am more interested in the viewer making use of his imagination to complete the story.

Anyone who poses for me is important.

Everyone is different but they deserve the same treatment and respect, ”she assures.

Image of the exhibition 'Portraits', by Jacques Sonck in the exhibition hall of Unicaja, Palencia.

Alice Brazzit (Fifcyl)

Both Ballen's and Sonck's work have been compared to that of Diane Arbus, something in which the former does not seem to agree very much, pointing to the writer Samuel Beckett as the key influence of his career "My work evokes the absurdity of the human condition,” says Ballen.

“In reality, we are all


in the psychological field, and from there we live in a certain way on the margins.

We cannot predict what is going to happen, nor can we control most things in life.

To think that one is in control is an illusion.”

Some of his critics have wanted to highlight a lack of empathy with his protagonists in his emphasis on the extreme and the grotesque, something that also happened to Arbus, when Susan Sontag wanted to see a position of privilege and superiority when portraying "pathetic people , which arouses compassion, as well as repulsive”.

Ballen defends herself by moving away from traditional definitions of beauty.

"In my head, those we refer to as beautiful traditionally have their own disturbances," he notes.

“I can make anyone a marginal being in my photographs, even if they are not.



Let's take Picasso, for example, whoever is portrayed by him becomes Picasso.

Good photography is like doing a painting,” he says flatly.

There is something very primitive about Ballen's images, which take the reader back to cave painting.

"My images are multidimensional and archetypal," he explains.

“One of the reasons why people don't forget about them is precisely because of this archetypal component that is found in the meaning and in the form.

Thus, the viewer, in his subconscious, somehow manages to recognize the cave, or something more primitive, and recognize it as part of his evolutionary development.

These are hard things to prove.

Images can be as primitive as they are sophisticated.

They are full of opposites, they are dark and disturbing while containing comedy and humor.

The beautiful and the ugly coexist in them.

There is no single word capable of expressing the coexistence of these dualities”.

For Ballen, the deepest word in our vocabulary is nothing.

“Nothing is death.

And the greatest fear that any being experiences is death, normally nobody wants to die, ”he argues.

“The great mystery is where we come from and where we are going, so we are always dealing with nothing.

We don't get rid of it.

We try but unconsciously the idea determines our behavior and that of all animals”.





Jacques Sonck.

Unicaja Exhibition Hall.


Until May 29th.


The World According to Roger Ballen


Unicaja Exhibition Hall.


Until May 29th.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2022-05-12

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