Condemned: Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis

ARTS, Books, EDITORS’ PICKS, Visual Arts
The exquisite and harrowing images behind New Zealander Robin Hammond’s W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund winning photojournalism.

New Zealand doesn’t have a strong history in producing traditional, socially-conscious documentary photographers. It seems to me that the majority of New Zealand documentary photographers are apolitical, or at least keep the political motivations quiet, happy to record things without wanting to rock the establishment or offend anyone (too much). Even Brian Brake, the only New Zealander to join Magnum, the most famous co-operative of socially-concerned photographers, was most likely signed up for commercial reasons rather than photographic or political/philosophical ones. And indeed, Brake quit Magnum because he felt he was able to earn more without them.

Around the mid-20th century, John Pascoe and Lesley Adkin (to name just two) tended to photograph what was going on around them: friends, family, events. In the 1950s-60s, Marti Friedlander and Ans Westra seemed more interested in the ‘exotic otherness’ of our Maori communities rather than a sense of the social inequality present. More recently photographers such as Bruce Connew and John Miller have flown the documentary flag, albiet without a strong political statement, even when photographing political subjects—although there is an argument that they photographed those things because they felt some affinity towards them.

Today, there is a predominance of art photographers utilising the ‘documentary’ approach minus the presence of a strong political statement, or even any statement at all. However, there is one New Zealand photographer who has gone against the grain.

Around the same time that Eleanor Catton was conquering the literary world and Lorde was conquering the music world, Robin Hammond was conquering the photographic world. On October 16, Hammond received the US$30,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, putting him in the same company as such important photographers as Trent Parke, James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress, Sebastião Salgado, and Eugene Richards.

Hammond’s name may be familiar to you from when he made the local news headlines as the “New Zealand journalist” arrested by authorities in Zimbabwe in 2012. Why his W. Eugene Smith Grant hasn’t garnered the same coverage I’m not quite sure, but it is just one of many international photography awards Hammond has received over the past few years.

Alongside four Amnesty International awards for Human Rights journalism, in 2011 he won the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award which allowed him to shoot in Zimbabwe for a few months, culminating in the book Zimbabwe: Your wounds will be named silence, published by Actes Sud in 2012. Earlier this year he won the FotoEvidence book award for his work looking at mental health in Africa, resulting in the book Condemned: Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis. And it was this work that also won him the W. Eugene Smith Grant.

As one might expect from Hammond’s pedigree, Condemned is a piece of classic photojournalism, shot digitally but printed in beautiful black and white. He shot the work over three years in nine countries in central Africa, from Somalia to Sierra Leone, and the book opens with Hammond briefly describing the state of mental health services in the countries he visited. Also included are fragments of interviews with patients, staff, administrators, and ‘healers’ which, importantly, give a greater context to the story told in the photos.

This is not a cheery book, though that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The choice of black and white reproductions over colour obviously references historical documentary practice, but more crucially it directs attention to the subject, removing those elements that may distract from the central point of the picture. As with the best photojournalism (refer to James Nachtwey for a remarkable example), Hammond has managed to combine a harrowing subject with some stunning, and beautiful, photography.

There are photos that seem unreal, that have me wondering how Hammond negotiated such open access: an Imam reciting the Koran through a megaphone inches from a patient’s head, a disembodied head getting some sun/light/air, the frank inhumanity. One can only assume that this is a story many people felt needed telling.

Hammond didn’t narrow his focus to just mental institutions; he also visited refugee camps—(civil) war is/has been rife in many of these countries—people in the general community, and informal settlements of affected people (e.g. child soldiers).

To pay full attention to the material is hard going, but that really is the point. But it’s not all dark and depressing; there is the odd moment of levity too, a smile, a laugh. The main content ends on an image of a woman attempting to scale a gate—either it’s a metaphor for hope, or a stark example of the crisis. Included at the end of the book are short captions for each image, and while the content of the images may be unpleasant, some of the captions, and indeed the interviews, make for sad and shocking reading.

The design is simple and well laid out, with the realisation that the reader won’t want to be bombarded constantly with full bleed images so there are breathing spaces and variations in pacing. Hammond has also conceived the entire book as the story, including front and back covers and endpapers—something I’ve not seen in a book before, but something that is very effective.

I met Robin Hammond in 2000, when he was finishing his studies and preparing to head overseas to pursue a photojournalism career. I haven’t followed his progress closely at all, but I was proud to hear he had won the W. Eugene Smith Grant, and that the passion he had has been not only fulfilled but rewarded. Whether in twenty or thirty years time we will be celebrating him as we do Brian Brake remains to be seen, but on the strength of Condemned he is someone we should be celebrating today.

Condemned: Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis
Robin Hammond,
Published by FotoEvidence
Approx $85 (US$50 + postage)

Images © Robin Hammond. All Rights Reserved. Published with the permission of the artist.