Nick Ballón’s journalistic sensibility is at the heart of his photographic practice. He has a way of discovering those little ticks or details about a place, person, or situation that others miss. Everything centers around his limitless curiosity. Investing hours into research and development on each project, he studies and hunts for nuances and irreverent details that allow him to forge a new route into a particular subject. He fuses this knowledge with a visual language that draws inspiration from ranging sources—from modern painters like Luc Tuymans and Peter Doig to a folder of personal iPhone snapshots that capture the oddities and accidents that occur in the everyday. This blend of high and low and research and observation is the foundation of his approach to image making.
Ballón’s best work occupies a state of limbo. With layers of contradictions intriguing and seducing the viewer, things are often not what they seem on the surface. He is interested in the moments that sit halfway between real and constructed. His compositions are graphic but retain warmth, while an uplifting color palette illuminates often mysterious or dark subject matter.
Ballón is an observationalist, seeking the moment of commitment when searching, waiting, and patience all come together. The work is quiet, yet attentive. Applying a sensitive approach to storytelling that unifies a diverse range of subjects, Ballón’s practice has created a portfolio that is a collision of subjects from the worlds of politics, art, science, history, sport, and popular culture.
For the last decade Ballón’s personal work has focused exclusively on his Anglo-Bolivian heritage, exploring sociohistorical ideas of identity and place, with a particular focus on the concept of “foreignness” and belonging. This work began at an auspicious time for both parties. Having grown up in the U.K, Ballón began to unravel his heritage through annual trips to Bolivia, discovering and observing through the people and communities he encountered. At the time, Bolivia was at a point of flux. The impact of globalization, the growing middle class, and the sudden accessibility of technology resulted in a rapid information evolution. Suddenly people were looking outwards. As Bolivians embraced their indigenous culture, they became massively influenced by the West. It was a dynamic period of change and a poignant time of discovery for him.
The work has started to build a collective narrative of a country often forgotten. Projects have included Ezekiel 36:36, an exploration of Bolivia’s national airline Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB). In this project that is the story of an airline waiting for a miracle, Ballón not only captures the absurdity of LAB’s grounded and decaying fleet and the men and women who keep the airline alive but also finds beauty in the remnants of this once glamorous airline. As Ballón says, “LAB is in many ways the story of the Bolivian people, caught between past glory and grandeur, and a promised future that never seems to arrive.” Viva Las Luchadoras! captures the spectacle of open-air wrestling. Lucha Libre wrestling tournaments are held in La Paz with female wrestlers, known as Fighting Cholitas. The images capture the surreal yet serene side of this flamboyant sport. His most recent work, The Bitter Sea, looks at landlocked Bolivia and its painful longing to reclaim its sea lost in a war to Chile over 129 years ago. The Navy Without a Sea is a small part of this wider project, which follows the rituals and daily habits of the navy’s elite scuba unit—another project that explores the line between absurdity and beauty as, due to its landlocked state, the Bolivian navy is primarily ceremonial. Ballón’s Bolivian work builds on themes of hope and uncertainty as the country continues to grapple with its past and its future.
As a friend, fan, and collaborator, I’ve gotten to know Nick Ballón’s approach from a variety of perspectives. I’ve seen him successfully transcend the barriers between art and commerce, creating work with integrity and purpose that exists in both worlds. His distinctive aesthetic and intuitive approach to subject matter allows him to occupy a sacred space in photography where the possibilities are endless, making the discovery of where he goes next a truly joyful encounter.
Gem Fletcher is a writer and creative director based in London. She is the photo director of Riposte magazine and writes about art and culture for a variety of publications.