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Shadow ChamberReview - Shadow Chamber
by Roger Ballen
Phaidon Press, 2006
Review by Christian Perring
Jul 1st 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 27)

South African photographer Roger Ballen works with his subjects to make very bizarre pictures that make the viewer uncomfortable.  His subjects are young people and people who look as if they have developmental delays.  Others show dead animals tied up or doll's heads with flies on them.  Kittens and puppies look unhappy, and children wear masks.  A pig seems to be handing from a rope around its neck.  Bodies look distorted, or appear in strange postures.  A man lies under a rough blanket while a budgerigar sits in a tree branch fixed to a wall next to him.  Haunting figures are drawn in chalk on the wall. 

These devices might remind one of rather cheap horror movies, but there's a documentary feel to them that makes one take them more seriously.  The pictures are in black and white, and seem very bizarre, and hard to decode.  They pictures seem to occur in a bare room and the subjects seem to be down and out.  With some, you wonder how they were able to consent to be photographed, or who consented for them.  There's also a sense of humor to these images, because of their oddness. 

As with any surreal images, and especially these, they are hard to interpret.  The emotional feel of distortion and violence is the strongest element here, and there are even suggestions of abuse.  The stick figures on the wall combined with barbed wire in the foreground seem especially menacing.  The subjects look like they are the victims of abuse, although some also look like they might be violent to others.  Most viewers will find these images disturbing and unpleasant.  While they are memorable, it is hard to know what to make of them.  The abstractness of the content, unconnected with any political realities, makes them harder to sympathize with: they seem like an exercise in weirdness and exploring the dark side of the self, and this project is rather dated.  However, it turns out on further investigation that the subjects are photographed in their own homes, and so this does give the pictures more political context, but raises real worries about what sort of collaboration was involved in the taking of these photographs, and what form of consent was given.  If there is some comment on contemporary South Africa in these pictures, it is very opaque. 

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© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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