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Robin Hammond’s Condemned – Dissertation Extract

Below is an extract from my third year dissertation. The two chapters are a case study of Robin Hammond’s Condemned, which I saw exhibited at Perpignan in 2012. Though much more formally written in comparison to my usual posts I wanted to put this up on the blog to be seen and read.

Photographic documentations of the mentally ill world wide are not rare. Practitioners such as Lu-Nan of Magnum focusing on Chinese psychiatric institutes; recent graduate Andrea Star Reese, focusing on the mentally ill in Indonesia; National Geographic contributor Eugene Richards, looking at the same topic in an array of nations such as Paraguay, Mexico, Kosovo have all covered the subject. However, there has been little documentation solely based on African nations struggling with mental health issues.

Conflicts, poverty and disease can not only be cause for the development of a psychiatric condition but can often also overshadow any media coverage of the situation regarding these conditions, often resulting in little or no reporting around mental illnesses in African countries.

In January 2011 a photographer was sent to South Sudan in order to cover the Referendum for Independence. On arrival he was overcome by the vast number of journalists and fellow colleagues, who had also gathered to document the event and took the brave and bold decision to bring back something entirely unique in comparison to the members of the media. Having witnessed a mentally ill individual helplessly abandoned on the roadside the photographer began delving into the subject in Africa with the aid of his local fixer and so, ‘Condemned’ by Robin Hammond of Panos Pictures was born. Hammond has since devoted a great deal of his time to becoming the much needed voice of Africa’s sufferers of mental illness.

With its own designated web presence ( ‘Condemned’ by Robin Hammond documents the state of mental illness welfare in the African nations of Uganda, Somalia, The Democratic Republic of Congo and North East Kenya. He is currently in the process of raising funds in order to continue with what is so far an entirely self funded project. With the money raised he aims to travel to Western Africa in order to document the situation there, thus creating a much more accurate portrayal of mental illness across this vast continent. These nations include the Ivory Coast, Chad and the Central African Republic. Hammond’s intensions are clear from his online introduction as he speaks personally and sincerely about his encounters with the sufferers, stating that having witnessed a nameless man eating off the very same floor he urinates and defecates on,  ‘The only way I could justify photographing this man was if I took up his cause and did everything I could to make sure someone was speaking for people like him when they too had been denied a voice.’ (Hammond R, 2012). The honesty of this statement appears to be a pledge more than anything else; a pledge to those people he encountered and the places he visited; a pledge that the images he took would create social change for those suffering.

This project is still in progress and long from completion therefore there are little critical reviews of the work to date. However, the support Hammond has gained in his attempts to raise funds in order to begin covering the Western area of the continent clearly demonstrates the purposeful, progressive and positive nature of the project. The influential British Journal of Photography and popular daily broadsheet newspaper the Telegraph, are among those who have publicly supported Hammond’s financial campaign along with hoards of enthusiastic amateur   photography based bloggers worldwide.

The work has already been exhibited in numerous countries and on various occasions. For example in 2011 the work was exhibited at the World Health Organization’s International Mental Health day in Kenya and the following year displayed at the prestigious photojournalism festival Visa Pour L’image in Perpignan. With an estimated footfall of 20,000 visitors the choice to exhibit Hammond’s work at the festival was made by Jean-François Leroy, former Sipa photographer, ex-editor of Photo magazine the man behind the festival. He explained in an interview with Olivier Laurent, news and online editor of The British Journal of Photography, why Hammond’s ‘Condemned’ had to be exhibited at the latest festival in 2012, ‘Some hospitals have been shut down or abandoned with their patients tried to trees. No one pays attention to them. Expect Robin Hammond.’  (Leroy, JF 2012).

The media coverage in the countries Hammond photographs in are dominated by issues such as wide spread famines caused by poverty or draught, mass genocide following years of civil war and disease that sweeps its way through much of the continent. Hammond’s work achieves its initial success due to the fact that there is little photographic documentation surrounding the care of psychiatric patients in Africa. This aspect will instantly interest an audience. As the topic is rarely documented they will know little about it and thus their natural curiosity will draw them in. However, the same could be said for any topic an audience knows little about. What sets Hammond’s work apart from his fellow practitioners though is also, as Jean-François Leroy states, ‘his angle.’  (Leroy, JF 2012).

Hammond does not make vain and ignorant attempts to show the audience what it is like to be inside the mind of a mentally ill patient with clichéd metaphorical or abstract imagery. The general public audience do not necessarily need to understand what happens in the minds of these individuals, but need to understand why their illnesses develop and what happens to them as a result. Hammond deals with visible entities. There is no suggestion, metaphors or conceptual imagery within Hammond’s ‘Condemned’. The fact that many sufferers are tied to trees in order to prevent them from running to certain death and that an endless number of psychiatric patients are kept confined in under resourced prisons are presented to us in the truthful clarity of monochromatic frames. As a result of the simplistic honesty of the composition and narrative Hammond exploits photography for possibly its most recognizable strength, as an international language.

Those of the audience who are fortunate enough to have never experienced a mental illness first hand can never truly understand what a psychiatric condition can do to the mind and it will therefore be difficult for a detached audience to relate, empathize and connect with an individual through a blurred abstract representation of the patient’s experience.  What a detached audience can understand through Hammond’s work is that these are vulnerable people, victims who are being mistreated. We can acknowledge and understand that it is wrong for a mother to be forced to tie her teenage son to a tree or for an ill-informed prison guard to be given the responsibility to care for a psychiatric patient and thus, the viewer is able to connect with the individuals photographed. His compassionate approach to shooting also ensures that it does not feel as though the patients are being photographed in order to be gawked at by an audience. In fact, Hammond’s images are so brutality factual and honest that they make the viewer want to look away.

Another aspect that makes this body of work so powerful is the question Hammond poses of who is to blame for the brutality we are presented with. He cleverly directs the distain of the audience and therefore the blame in an unexpected direction. After viewing the work we are not frustrated at those who have restrained their relatives or are accusatory of those medically untrained healers who believe they are curing their patients. Through compassionate shooting and factual captions we realize that these individuals are victims too. Despite their care often being inadequate and coping methods appearing cruel, we are able to understand that they are driven to this because of their love and devotion towards the sufferer and due to a lack of education and facilities at their disposal.  As a result of the objective shooting it seems as though people are pardoned from blame; the relatives coping badly; the healers misjudging cures and even the government who fail to acknowledge the issue as they become sidetracked by dealing with conflicts. This is because blame alone will not improve the situation and Hammond has succeeded in acknowledging this through his work. As there is no villain figure to hold responsible the audience is forced to redirect their despair and take on the responsibility themselves, often by donating to a relevant charity or by actually volunteering. Perhaps the most significant element that makes this work a possible motivation for action and thus social change, is Hammond’s verbal commitment as not only a photographer, but as an activist too. He states, ‘I really do hope we can bring attention to this issue and start a movement that campaigns for a better life for this vulnerable group that have been denied a voice for too long’.

The concept of a photographer also acting as an activist is by no means a new concept. Famous and familiar names spring to mind when discussing actively using photography as a tool for social change. Arguably the most prominent of these is Lewis Hine, who succeeded in affecting changes in the laws surrounding child labour in the US with his 1920’s photographs of children working in poor conditions. Hine also worked closely with charities such as the American Red Cross, photographing their relief work around Europe. Despite the concept not being particularly revolutionary, modern photographers are often all to focused on themselves and their images rather than the subject of their work. Though many may intend to spark social change, the attention is focused on the photographer and their merits rather than the subject itself.

‘Condemned’ by Hammond appears separately from his personal website and his sub pages on Panos Pictures Agency’s website (though also featured on these sites). With a presence of its own, the work focuses entirely upon the subject and not at all on the photographer. The opening page to the ‘Condemned’ website plays a slideshow of images and tucked away in small print on the lefthand corner is the barely noticeable accreditation, ‘by Robin Hammond.’  The introductory page instantly explains what the project is about without once mentioning the photographer, his other work or his qualifications. This is in stark contrast to other photographers’ online presence who have photographed in similar situations. It simply begins: ‘CONDEMNED documents the mental health impacts of crises in Africa – the trauma of mass rape, the grief of death in war, the insecurity of displacement.’ (Hammond, R 2012).

There is a modesty about the way Hammond campaigns using his images and unlike many photographers this is not a self congratulatory project. Hammond precariously balances between the role of activist and photographer as he campaigns to give a voice to those suffering from mental illnesses in Africa. His devotion to the cause and willingness to step beneath the shadow of the campaign is admirable. Every image is dedicated to the photographed, not the photographer.  This is not an exercise to strengthen a portfolio or make money for personal use and this is highlighted as Hammond granted sole ownership of his images free of any charge to related charities and causes. His aims are similar to those of legendary photographer Sebastião Salgad. Salgado states that he did not ‘want anyone to appreciate the light or the palette of tones’ instead what was important to him was that his pictures ‘inform, provoke discussion and raise money’.

Of course it would be naive to expect every photographer to freely donate every one of their images to charity. If this was the case the profession of photography would no longer be practical and every practitioner would become a volunteer rather than a professional photographer. However, the amount of attention the photographer allows themselves in comparison with that of the subject is one of the determining factors of how successful a photographic documentation is in creating or beginning a movement for social change.

There are many ethical discussions and debates around how photographers work in the field whilst they are capturing their images; the pressure of shooting objectively; the responsibility of directing a viewers eyes towards a particular scene over another; the question of whether to intervene whilst shooting and many other too. These dilemmas have evoked a vast number of opinions and debates throughout the history of photography. American photojournalist and documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, firmly believes that a photographer can never shoot objectively as she boldly states, ‘You try to go into a situation with an open mind, but then you form an opinion, and you express it in your photographs.’ (Mary Ellen Mark. 1974). Creative media artist Wim Wenders believes that, ‘The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes.’ (Wenders W, 1997). Kevin Carter’s lack of intervention with his disturbing image of a starving child being overlooked by a ravenous vulture sparked countless debates around whether a photographer should intervene with a situation. Much less, however, is said about the photographer’s responsibility after the shutter has been released, after they return to normality and the project is complete. It is at this point it becomes clear whether  a documentary photography project is actually capable of evoking or creating social change and this is primarily down to the commitment and social concern of the photographer.

It is this attitude that is essential if one truly wants to create social change. A photograph is where it begins, the very first step in evoking any form of change or betterment. Elements such as where the images are displayed, who they are seen by and how they are viewed, all contribute to the success of helping to creating social change. It is up to the photographer to ensure that after their images have been initially published they are not hidden away and forgotten about. It is their role to dirty their hands with the responsibility of circulating those images among the people who make essential policy decisions, people who can support existing charities and audiences who have the power and will to spark social change. If a photograph is captured but never seen, or rarely seen by the right people, it is questionable whether it was worth releasing the shutter at all. The question of whether photography can succeed in creating social change is primarily linked with the question of the photographers desires and intensions having captured the image.

1 Comment

  1. Frances Cortez

    These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. The photographs and captions are the property of the Library of Congress and were included in a 2006 exhibit Bound for Glory: America in Color.

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