I thought that I would share this with you. It was some questions that I posed the students I mentor regarding the work of Khalik Allah. Khalik Allah is a multi-faceted director, film-maker and photographer whose street photography is visually story telling at its grittiest. Shot in vibrant color film with an aged, grainy quality, Khalik’s cinematic vignettes document hardscrabble life at the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem (New York City).


This is what he had to say about approaching strangers in the street to photograph them:

“It’s all psychology. Minds are like water/ no definite shape. When I walk up to someone for a photograph I don’t put them in a box. There’s absolutely no judgement and this is essential to building trust. The existence of fear is impossible in the presence of love, so only show love in the street. This requires trust on your part”.

Is that true? Or is he “putting them in a box”despite what he may say? Is he guilty of “othering” or profiting from his subjects’ circumstance?  Is he perpetuating stereotypes? There are, I think, parallels with Roger Ballen’s work and how he depicted the rural Afrikaner. Roger Ballen is an American photographer who has used South Africa as a source of subject matter. For more than two decades he has been photographing the South African countryside and its inhabitants.  In 1982 he began with the theme of Dorps/Small Towns in South Africa (1982-1986). During these times people were still isolated and a unique environment existed in these small towns. He then moved on to his Platteland project presenting stark duotone portrait photographs which captured the hidden world of South Africa’s impoverished white inhabitants of the plattelands or midlands, revealing a ravaged world of social and economic isolation, disease, poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment. Most were severely alienated by the radical changes taking place in the society around them, notably the transition from white minority rule to black majority rule. Ballen presents a voyeuristic freak show, appealing to the viewer’s baser tastes. Two of his most famous and controversial photographs are: Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal (1993);

Roger Ballen: Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transval, 1993


and Sergeant F de Bruin, Department of Prison’s Employee, Orange Free State (1992).



Ballen insists that our fascination with the mentally and physically handicapped twins, Dresie and Casie, is not to do with their almost outlandish appearance, but because “they’re your cousins. You’re related to them. You are seeing a picture of your insides.” He avoids the question of whether he was drawn to the human grotesque or the co-opting of our complicity as viewers .

“To discern fact from fiction in his work may be simply impossible,”  Robert A Sobieszek writes in the introduction to Shadow Chamber. “To tell acting from real life may also be; to bother with such discernment may not only be futile but missing the point”.  In my opinion however, Ballen should man-up because if there is fiction in his work than the victims are his subjects who are not complicit in its making as well as the uninformed viewer. Watch the making of video of his Asylum of the Birds and tell me that he does not leave those subjects of his with something dark. There is abuse there even if it is not physical.


Photography (art) meets popular culture in the collaboration of Ballen and Die Antwoord, with more than 25 million hits and counting since the uploading of the I Fink You Freeky video on YouTube in 2012.  Die Antwoord (pronounced [di ant vort], translation: “The Answer”) is a South African rap-rave group formed in Cape Town in 2008. Fronted by rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er and backed by DJ Hi Tek. Their image involves a counterculture movement called zef and the influence of photographer Roger Ballen. They play on the human grotesque that Ballen preys on.


Die Antwoord observed that journalists and critics, particularly in the United States, frequently ask if their creative output is a joke or a hoax. When asked if he was playing a character, Ninja said, “Ninja is, how can I say, like Superman is to Clark Kent. The only difference is I don’t take off this fokken Superman suit.” They have described their work as “documentary fiction” and “exaggerated experience” designed for shock value. Ninja told Spin:

“People are unconscious, and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. Some people are too far gone. They’ll just keep asking, “Is it real? Is it real?” That’s dwanky. That’s a word we have in South Africa, “dwanky.” It’s like lame. “Is it real?” You have to be futuristic and carry on. You gotta be a good guide to help people get away from dull experience.”


In their words we find, ironically, our answer (die antwoord). It is exactly this that Ballen does, documentary fiction although he will never admit to it. Returning to Khalik Allah’s work, is it the human grotesque that makes it powerful, and are we, the viewer complicit?


Nevertheless I found Khalik’s images extremely powerful! Check them out on his site:


But keep in mind those questions I have raised and ask them, especially if and when you are making art. Are you guilty of this? Would you want to be?


I leave you with lyrics from Die Antwoord’s “I Fink You Freeky”.

Sexy boys, fancy boys

Playboys, bad boys

I fink u freeky and I like you a lot

I fink u freeky and I like you a lot

I fink u freeky and I like you a lot

I fink u freeky and I like you a lot


Motherfuckers get buzzed off the spice that I bring

Guess who’s got the party jumpin’?

Glow in the dark rave, aura pumping

It’s nice and different, yo fuck the the system!

My system pumps off it’s fucking face

Step into my world nou’s jy tuis in paradys

Yo word up to my brother, muis

Pump up your speakers, yo God se Jesus.

Kyk wies rapping, lekker to the drum

These bad boys like to smack me in the bum

My crew’s blowing up like Chappie’s bubblegum

Popping in your face, nyaaa

Yo fuck the rat race, my style is rap rave

My crew is kak fresh, so who the fuck cares?

What you fucking think, I’m the type of chick

Who rolls with spif giftige misfits


I fink u freeky and I like you a lot

I fink u freeky and I like you a lot

I fink u freeky and I like you a lot

I fink u freeky and I like you a lot


Hold up! Whoa, whoa wait a minute minute Jesus Christ

Yo my man DJ High Tek – Shit, this motherfucking beat is nice

Back in the day of them dwankies didn’t want to believe in us

Little did they know that they was in for a motherfucking big surprise.

Left home locked in my Zef zone

Ready for the test yo? What the fuck, I guess so

Hit the overseas, motherfucker’s heads get blown.

Get everything for like Dr. Dre Beats headphones

When I get home I lounge on my Zef throne

Make my mummy happy cause I get so paid

Making my money rapping over techno rave

I can take you ’round the world, let’s go babe

When I step up and do my thing I put you in a trance

My Zef motherfucking clique got it going on

Fuck what you think, I do what I want

I can make a million little motherfuckers jump


Jump motherfucker, jump motherfucker jump (x4)


Increase the peace, don’t wreck the party

And fuck da jol up for everybody

Ek’s a laarney, jy’s a gam

Want jy lam innie mang, met jou slang in a man


I fink u freeky and I like you a lot (x4)


Now why you loer en kyk gelyk?

Is ek miskien van goud gemake?

You want to fight, you come tonight.

Ek moer jou sleg! So jy hardloop weg.


God se Jesus, we come to party

Pump your speakers, yo rock your body

In god we trust, you can’t fuck with us

We’re not taking kak, I’d like to say what’s up

To my sexy boys, and my fancy boys,

And my playboys, and my bad boys,

And my pretty boys, and my ugly boys,

And my naughty boys,

We gonna have a nice time kids