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Roger Ballen's black-and-white portraits of the poverty-stricken, down- trodden whites of South Africa bear a striking resemblance to the portraits of southern and western American drifters economically photographed against stark white canvases by the fashionable New York snapper Richard Avedon. But the difference is this: while Avedon's pictures, currently gracing the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, derive their power from the juxtaposition of "ordinary" people against the exact same plain, empty white background as the celebrities he photographs, Ballen's subjects sit starkly in the discomfort of their own ramshackle homes. The power, here, comes not from alienation, but by exposing what is there for the taking: the juxtaposition of slum conditions, white people and South Africa. It's a new slant, pure documentary and - in the grand tradition of Walker Evans in America and August Sander in Germany - an incisive use of portraiture to reflect times of great change. Platteland, a new exhibition and book, is the result of Ballen's two-year journey across South Africa's Platteland (the word used to refer to the predominantly barren South African countryside), to uncover the plight of the ignored white minority. And it's clear from the fraught and often ravaged faces that stare out from these powerful, virtually surreal portraits, that despite the political privilege apartheid has bestowed on the white population, many whites have slipped through the net. This is their story - and it's particularly tragic: poverty-stricken, rejected and downgraded, these are South Africans with no identity at all.

Platteland at RFH Galleries, South Bank SE1 (071-928 8800); book is published by Quartet (£25)