“Wherever there is conflict the mental health aspects of everybody is affected… when you bring in poverty, the little thing that somebody has, he loses it in conflicts, and that frustrates them a lot.” These are the words of Médecins sans Frontiers Mental Health Officer, Birongo Mogaka, at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya and they hit me like a train.
‘Condemned’ by Robin Hammond is more than a collection of images. The background information and extensive interviews with patients, their families and those who ‘care’ for them, arm the reader with facts as well as awakening them to the horrors of African mental healthcare in the visual sense.
The photo-book was the winner of this year’s FotoEvidence Book Awards and deservedly so. It exposes the social, psychological and physical imprisonment of mental health illnesses in African countries with limited understanding and non-existent resources, and yet it was not always this way. In an interview, Janice Cooper (Country Representative for Health and Project Lead for Mental Health for The Carter Centre in Liberia) explains that before the conflict in Liberia mental healthcare resources may not have been excellent, but a basic system for helping sufferers was in place. Now, what little there was has been taken away. She says “It broke down because fighting forces went into the hospitals…many of the people who were mentally ill were killed or shot…”
As highlighted by Mogaka, conflict is also the source of mental health problems for many African people. Post traumatic stress disorder is rife, not only amongst those who witnessed and suffered horrendous violence but also amongst those who committed it. As child soldiers they were forced to kill under threat of becoming subject to the violence themselves and are now endlessly tormented by the memories of their actions. Many turn to drugs and alcohol to forget in the absence of professional help and medication. Many spend their lives in chains and, without family members to bring them food, starvation in often the cause of death.
Hammond’s images capture the hopelessness of the situation and the overall feeling of helplessness amongst patients. As I look upon an image of a person lying half naked, face down on the floor, in the corner of a bare room with their foot chained… even the word ‘patient’ seems grossly misrepresentative. A lone figure reenacts a fight scene against an invisible enemy, holding a piece of wood as if it were a rifle; the effects of war remain long after the conflict is over.
These may be some of the most shocking and saddening photographs I have ever seen, and I certainly won’t forget them in a hurry. Mental healthcare continues to be overlooked across many developing countries and yet its sufferers are vast in their numbers. Hammond has achieved something incredible here by giving a voice to a group of people who are systematically ignored, misunderstood and ultimately failed by society. His images, however, cannot be ignored and will undoubtedly help to raise awareness.
You can buy the ‘Condemned’ photo-book from the FotoEvidence bookstore.
About Robin Hammond…
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.
Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. With many thanks to FotoEvidence.