Looking at the photographs and videos of American photographer Roger Ballen is not a comfortable experience. In fact, it can be downright unsettling.

Whether it’s the ghostly black eyeballs in the 2012 music video for Die Antwoord’s I Fink U Freeky, or the innocent-sounding photo titled, Puppy between feet (at first glance it’s a rather sweet image of a newborn pup squeezing its way between a pair of feet, but on closer inspection something entirely different) Ballen’s images demand you stop and think.

This is exactly what the American photographer intends. Ballen deliberately blurs the line between fantasy and reality in his trademark, simply framed, black-and-white photographs that act as metaphors for the inner mind.

Born in New York in 1950, Ballen grew up surrounded by the photographs represented in his mother’s Madison Avenue gallery, Photography House. They included works by Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész.

Although he has been taking photographs for more than 50 years Ballen was originally a geologist, a job that took him to Johannesburg in the mid-1970s. There he began to shoot the inhabitants of the small towns he passed through. He fell in love with the country and has lived there ever since.

Using the same Rolleiflex black-and-white-film camera, Ballen looks for images that have complex meanings and challenge the viewer and himself.

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“When people say my images are dark, it’s basically that the photos are entering a part of themselves they fear or have avoided,” he says. “They’re psychologically threatening in some way, that’s clear.”

Ballen is represented here by Stills Gallery and his photography has featured in exhibitions at MONA, the National Library of Australia and The Art Gallery of Western Australia. Now he’s having his first major Sydney exhibition at Sydney College of the Arts.

Curated by SCA professor Colin Rhodes, Theatre of the Mind is being presented thematically in five “theatres”, and will include Ballen’s videos.

Ballen and Professor Rhodes are also collaborating with two SCA-affiliated artists and an Outsider Art artist on a new installation in the “dungeon” at the former Rozelle psychiatric hospital in Callan Park.

Given everybody is an iPhone photographer today, Ballen’s advice to emerging art photographers is blunt but pragmatic: find a second profession.

“There’s such an oversupply of photographs that it’s so, so difficult to rise above it to create art photography and develop a unique aesthetic,” he says. “Do it for your own reasons – passion, discipline – and do what I did, get another profession.”

Roger Ballen will give a free artist talk on March 9 at 1pm at the Sydney College of the Arts Auditorium; Theatre of the Mind is on display at Sydney College of the Arts March 16–30 April. Admission is free.