Roger Ballen’s photobook Outland caused a lot of controversy when it was first published in 2001. It was filled with bizarre staged scenes of poor, down-and-out people from the margins of South African society. The pictures are charged psychologically and socially, and seem intended to create unease around the ideas of racism, apartheid, poverty, exploitation and mental illness.

In 2001, Outlands was also named Best Photographic Book of the Year at PhotoEspaña.

So, since then, it’s been difficult to get a decent copy of this groundbreaking, inspiring, and rather disturbing work. Thankfully, this classic photobook has just been reprinted 14 years after its original publication — now with 30 additional images, some insightful new essays, and super-rich elegant black-and-white printing.

The images — mostly staged portraits of possibly mentally deranged black and white South Africans and their domestic animals — are still disturbing. But it is hard to look away from them, perhaps because the subject matter is so uncomfortable yet at the same time it captures something real about base level humanity. The images are near perfect from a formal and artistic point of view. And each one vibrates with the dark side of human nature. The pictures, and the scenes being acted out for the camera, stick in your mind, haunt you, and make you think.

Here is a concise summary of the book and what led up to it:

Outland is the culmination of almost twenty years work for artist-photographer Roger Ballen and amounts to one of the most extraordinary photographic documents of the late twentieth century. Beginning by documenting the small ‘dorps’ or villages of rural South Africa, Ballen’s photography moved on in the late 1980s and early 1990s to their inhabitants: isolated rural whites, scarred by history, in the process of losing the privileges of apartheid which had provided them livelihoods and sustained their identity for a generation. The results were shocking, both powerful social statements and disturbing psychological studies.

Through the late 1990s and into 2000, Ballen’s work progressed again. Continuing to portray whites on the fringe of South African society, his subjects begin to act. Where previously his pictures, however troubling, fell firmly into the category of documentary photography, these pictures move into the realms of fiction. Ballen’s characters act out dark and discomfiting tableaux, providing images which are exciting and disturbing in equal measure. One is forced to wonder whether they are exploited victims, colluding directly in their own ridicule, or newly empowered and active participants within the drama of their representation.

Yes, that’s where it leaves you: psychologically disturbed, questioning motives and methods, but marveling nonetheless at these images that feel like the equivalent of a play by Samuel Beckett — is it brilliant art? Psychological truth? Or something else? You need to see the work to decide for yourself.

— Jim Casper

P.S. For greater insight and understanding of this work, watch this great 10-minute interview with Roger Ballen, exclusively on LensCulture.

by Roger Ballen
Publisher: Phaidon Press
Hardcover: 144 pages