Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
The winner of the 2013 FotoEvidence Book Award Robin Hammond is a 37-year-old freelance photojournalist born in New Zealand. He has been part of the photo agency Panos Pictures since 2007.
The winner of four Amnesty International awards for Human Rights journalism, Robin has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues around the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2011 Hammond won the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award which allowed him to document in Zimbabwe for four months. Actes Sud published a book of the photos to coincide with an exhibition of the work in Paris in November 2012.
His long term project on mental health, Condemned, was exhibited in September 2012 at the photojournalism festival Visa Pour l’Image.
After spending time in Japan, the United Kingdom and South Africa, Robin Hammond currently lives in Paris. He contributes to many international newspapers and magazines including National Geographic, Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, and Polka. He also works regularly with various non-governmental organizations.
SB. Why did you decide to work on a project related to mental health in Africa?
RH. I was in Juba, South Sudan to cover the referendum for Independence. There were many photographers and journalists there from around the world. I had to find something other than the rallies and ballot box pictures that everyone else would be shooting. The journalist I was working with and I were in the car debating how we could tell this story in a different way when I saw a mentally disabled girl begging on the side of the road. I asked our driver what treatment there was for mentally disabled people in Juba. He casually replied that they were put in the prison. Our story became about the price South Sudan had to pay for independence. In particular, we focused on what happens to the most vulnerable in communities when war destroys infrastructure and the ability to provide social services. The images of mentally disabled men and women shackled in Juba Central Prison were a stark illustration of the cost of war.
Unfortunately it is not just Sudan that has been through difficult times. I set out to investigate the mental health impacts of conflict and crises on other sub-Saharan countries.
The media rarely considers the long-term impacts of war, famine and displacement. Westerners have long been aware of the trauma of war on their own troops and civilians caught up in disaster. Africans do not suffer any less. I thought this was an important story that needed to be told.
SB. You wrote “After 12 years of documenting human rights issues, I’ve never come across a greater assault on human dignity”. What did you witnessed that made you say this?
RH. Not only was the severity of the cases of abuse and neglect great, but I was overwhelmed by the scale. Over and over again I saw people denied their liberty – restraining mentally disabled men, women, and children seemed the first and often only form of ‘treatment’. Everywhere I went I found an entire section of the society in chains.
They are easily marginalized. They are not allowed to advocate for themselves. The vast majority of the people I met are acutely aware that they are being deprived of their rights, but their arguments are written off as the ramblings of ‘mad people’.
There is no greater population of marginalized and voiceless people on earth than the mentally disabled.
SB. How many countries did you visit? And what did they have in common that led to such a mental health disaster?
RH. I’ve now documented this issue in seven countries with two more to go. All of these countries have regions going through or coming out of some kind of crisis that has impacted their mental health. In some countries, trauma from their particular crisis has psychologically impacted societies, in others it has been the infrastructure and services that have been impaired by disaster. Often both have occurred.
SB. Why did you title your work “Condemned”?
RH. I was deeply affected by what I witnessed when I first encountered the abuse of the mentally disabled in Juba Prison. Most of those I met had been imprisoned merely for having a disability: dozens of innocent people incarcerated, as if criminals.
To be born with or develop a mental disability in an African country in or coming out of crisis often means a life condemned to abuse, discrimination, and neglect.
SB. Your project, "Condemned" takes the viewer right into the lives of the people affected by mental illnesses? How were you able to gain access?
RH. Different situations required different strategies. Some people were resistant, suspicious of my presence, but generally I would explain to those caring for, or incarcerating, the people I photographed what I was doing and they would show me around their facility. Many didn’t see their treatment of people with mental disability as abusive. It is, in a way, even more disturbing that they considered their treatment as normal and in no way cruel.
SB. It is difficult for many who live in developed countries to even imagine the conditions your photographs reveal. What was the most shocking story you encountered?
RH. Meeting children in abusive situations was incredibly hard. I vividly remember the boy who had been tied to a stick in a refugee camp in Galkayo in Somalia for 11 of his 13 years. The young child locked in a cell for what the guard described as the “dangerously insane men” in Niger Delta still has me waking in the middle of the night wracked with guilt for not picking him up there and then and storming out of the building. The mentally ill man who wept to be unchained from a tree at the home of a traditional healer who beat him regularly, rarely fed him and left him out at night exposed to the rain and the mosquitos is often on my mind. Then there are the many cases of people suffering from post traumatic stress – the woman I met in Dadaab Refugee camp: the last thing she saw was her husband and son being killed before the same men cut out her eyes. I was very affected by the little girl I met who escaped after 18 months as a captive of the Lords Resistance Army in northern DR Congo. I write this from Liberia where I’ve been with former child soldiers who take drugs to dull the memories of their murderous youths. The stories they tell me of what they did are horrendous. One often forgets that perpetrators of atrocities can also suffer post-traumatic stress.
SB. Did you have the chance to speak with some of the medical personal in these places? What is their view of the way the mentally ill are treated?
RH. I always spoke to those responsible for the care of the mentally disabled in the places I visited. Some of those were medical personnel, others were religious or traditional healers. Prison guards were the caretakers in Juba Prison. In many cases, family members must care for their mentally disabled relative without any assistance. I went to non-governmental organizations, government facilities, refugee camps, villages, slums. The attitudes varied from place to place, person to person. Many people think mental illness has a spiritual cause and therefore seek spiritual remedy. Imams, pastors, and traditional healers strongly believe they are curing the sick. Sometimes they can be the only people in a community giving any kind of positive attention to the mentally disabled. Unfortunately their treatment can also be very harmful.
Those with a medical background are often frustrated by the lack of resources they have, especially when it comes to the provision of medications. I met with a mental health clinician here in Liberia that has been able to turn around the lives of hundreds of people in his region. The non-governmental organization providing the drugs is ending its program in August. The Liberian government is supposed to take over provision but the medical personnel I met say it won’t happen. Their patients are terrified of having to go back to the lives they were leading before.
Then there are those who are merely caretakers. The prison warden of Juba Central Prison was very clear – this was the wrong place and they were the wrong people to be caring for the country’s mentally ill, but they had no choice.
SB. The way a nation treats its mentally disabled can be a good indicator of the quality of its society. Did you find this to be the case?
RH. I’m not sure how one measures the quality of a society and personally I would hesitate to relate it to the treatment of the mentally ill. I do think though that the mental health of a society and its attitudes towards it are interconnected with the events it experiences. The crises these countries have been through have caused mental illnesses and simultaneously destroyed the resources and facilities designed to care for the mentally disabled. Both Monrovia in Liberia and Mogadishu in Somalia had state of the art mental health facilities before they were destroyed in war.
In disaster, education is also weakened, which results in a lack of knowledge about mental health. It also drives away mental health professionals who would otherwise be able to provide care and teach their societies about it.
SB. The way mental illness is treated remains a problem in Africa. Do you think your presence as a photographer touched the lives of any of your subjects?
RH. The way mental illness is treated is a global problem but especially challenging in countries going through or coming out of crises. Unfortunately Africa has seen more than its fair share of disaster.
My presence did touch the lives of some of my subjects. I wish I could have helped more.
SB. Do you think alerting the public to these circumstances can help bring the change needed to address this injustice?
RH. I truly hope so. Even if they had the resources, many of the countries I’ve visited for this work are struggling with governance issues. The surest way of making a difference is to bring in outside help. It is my hope that donor countries, who will be the major audience of this work, will be able to influence their governments to support this issue.
SB. Are there advocates for the mentally ill in some of these nations?
RH. In most of the countries I’ve visited there are organizations trying to help people with mental disability. Everywhere they are under resourced and struggling.
SB. How are African governments addressing this issue?
RH. Poorly. Very few African governments have any kind of mental health policy. Those that do rarely allocate any of their health budget to mental health. In the countries where I’ve done this project they have competing priorities: steps to be taken to recover and develop. Mental health very rarely even makes the list.
When it comes to social policies, African countries that have been through disasters often rely on the assistance of outside agencies. If international non-governmental organizations and other donors are not going to acknowledge mental health as an integral part of primary health care and give it the attention it has to other important issues such as HIV, TB, Malaria then it is unlikely African governments will give mental health any significant attention.
SB. What do you hope the publication of Condemned will accomplish?
RH. Making people aware is the first step. Having the audience connect to the issue is the next. I hope the stories of the people in the photos and the images themselves will stimulate that connection. From that, I hope action will follow. I’d like to send a copy of this book to non-governmental organizations working on development and health issues in Africa. Western governments, through funding, can influence policy in African countries too. I’d like the ministers responsible for aid in donor countries to receive a copy of this book. Mental health is a human rights issue. I would like the human rights commissioners of both African and donor countries to have a copy as well. It would be helpful too for the small groups who I worked with in these countries to be able to use this publication as a tool for advocacy.
The more people aware of this issue the better. The least we can do is ensure that ignorance can longer be used as an excuse for inaction.
Many Somalis will take their mentally ill relative to traditional or Khoranic healers for treatment. Mogadishu, Somalia. May 2011