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I happened upon a few of these images by a random link through an unremembered chain of connections, and then, mystified, I had to research their origin and felt compelled to know more. There's not many composed/staged photographs that really hit me viscerally, but some of these definitely do. They appear obviously set-up as you look at them, but then after a while they also seem loose and free-formed and there's some tense spontaneity about them. The black and white tones bring me back to Weegee and Diane Arbus and photographs from the Great Depression. The square format, the shadows and lack of them from the harsh flash, the degradation of people and animals hiding amidst the surroundings, the flattening of space, the sometimes beautiful arrangement of objects, and the one word titles that stick in my memory and bring out an interesting interplay of ideas when paired with the metaphors going on in the pictures.
What's crazy is that the place in these photographs actually exists:
"Eventually we reach the crux of the matter, upon learning from the text that this quite extraordinary place which Ballen has felt compelled to photograph over the last few years and calls the Boarding House, far from being a figment of his imagination, really does exist. Very remote and hidden amongst enormous tailings from gold mines near Johannesburg, it is in actual fact a three-storey warehouse building which has become a neighbourhood unto itself. The interior is crowded with the poor: entire families of workers, transients, criminals hiding from the law, even witchdoctors who attend to the many diseases within this unsanitary and overcrowded environment. Few rooms are separated by walls, most of the spaces, as in a shantytown, being partitioned by rugs, blankets or metal sheeting, and each being self-contained. There are no visible windows or open doors. Each doorway, although closed, seems to lead to an inner sanctum. One, surrounded by a giraffe hide, belongs to a sangoma, or South African witchdoctor. Another, with a picture of Mary and the infant Jesus, leads to a makeshift church. A third, more ominous doorway is the entrance to the Ghost Room, where long ago the managers of gold mines were reputed to have violently punished recalcitrant miners, sometimes even starving then to death. This lawless yet strangely enthralling location has served as the focus of Ballen’s photographic work over the last four years." --Richard Pinsent
There's a lot more of his photographs at his website.