Roger Ballen – boyhood

Review by Gerhard Clausing

At times some of us feel a certain nostalgia and want to go back to our youth. We long to be boys or girls again, thinking that things were simpler in our youth. We imagine that life was more innocent and more harmonious than what we now face as adults. It is easy to forget that there were also many sources of stress when we were very young – getting along with others in our age group, reaching certain levels of achievement in school, living up to the expectations of our parents, and much more. All this nostalgia and all these feelings are brought back by Roger Ballen’s first book, boyhood, now published in expanded form.

Early in his career, Ballen took a number of years to document male children in their various activities in many countries; the results of that documentary project are presented in this photobook. He notes in the accompanying text that it was a time in which it was easy to free oneself from the pressures of having to check the latest emails and the latest seemingly important global events every single day. In fact, the author is shown in a portrait of that time and we can certify that he certainly looked the part of someone from the 1970s as he was doing these photographs. Such undisturbed time is a luxury that few of us can afford in our current age and time. We find out that Roger Ballen, after the death of his mother, traversed the world for a period of four years in search of his own childhood.

The images included constitute a virtual catalog of behaviors and attitudes, evoking many emotions in the viewer/reader. We witness moments of bravado, examples of playfulness and budding romance, social activities that prepare boys for later functioning in their respective societies. Each image has a caption that gives us the particular location where Ballen observed and documented the particular boyhood moments.  We can see that the challenges for boys are similar yet somewhat culturally adapted throughout the world. Many small moments of drama are included. Ballen’s cultural notes about how his time was divided among the various countries add important details and useful insights. His sharing many details about his own childhood is a rare opportunity for us to understand Ballen as a man and as an artist.

What is particularly interesting for us looking back over the substantial accomplishments of Roger Ballen over the the time that has passed since the publishing of that original first book: we can detect some interest in matters which are somewhat askew,  or at least out of the ordinary, even then. Among the samples given in the picture section below, I would like to point out some examples: The mystery-producing effects of shadow and light in the groups shown on pages 4 and 5. The somewhat grotesque swagger of the “blown-up boy” (p. 21). The odd posture of the boy looking for his ball on page 28. The idiosyncratic postures and composition of the boys playing with the jump rope (p. 69). The unusual juxtaposition of masks on page 75. The ghost-like appearance of the boy on page 86. Exacting violence on others (pages 100-101). See if you can find more, especially in the rest of the book as well.

This photobook thus gives us an opportunity to study the early work of Roger Ballen in relation to all the later accomplishments published since that first major project was completed. It is a fascinating reissue, edited and printed well, one that should not be missing in the library of serious collectors. It is a splendid companion volume to similar works, such as Sally Mann’s At Twelve, another free-wheeling, though different, study of childhood in our time.


The PhotoBook Journal previously featured reviews of these books by Roger Ballen: The Earth Will Come to Laugh and Feast (with Gabriele Tinti), Roger the Rat, Ballenesque, The Theatre of Apparitions, Asylum of the Birds, and Boarding House.


Gerhard (Gerry) Clausing, Associate Editor of the PhotoBook Journal, is an author and photographer from Southern California.


Roger Ballen – boyhood

Photographer:  Roger Ballen (born in New York City, lives in Johannesburg, South Africa)

Publisher:  Damiani, Bologna, Italy; Expanded Edition © 2022

Texts:  Roger Ballen: new preface; prologue, epilogue

Language:  English

Hardback with illustrated cover; 112 pages, paginated, with 70 images; 8.75 x 10.75 inches (22 x 27 cm); printed in Italy; ISBN 978-88-6208-775-9


Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are under copyright by the authors and publishers.

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