Seeing the Unseen

Are we purveyors of doom? Is it necessary for some documentary photographers to focus on the poor, the underprivileged, war victims, the marginalized and sick? Is the life of the outsider a subject worthy of attention? Do the conditions that push some individuals to the edge warrant scrutiny? Do we have a responsibility to make visible that which is invisible?

I was sheltering from a storm in a railway underpass that was slushing with water from overflowing drains when I saw, in the tunnel, a woman hunched under a blanket sniveling and shivering from the cold. The crowds rushed past intent on catching a train, shaking their umbrellas and brushing water from dripping hair. The woman who had a handwritten sign that asked for spare change was ignored; she wasn’t seen.

There are 500 people being held in detention in Nauru and no one is allowed to photograph them or their conditions. Their crime is being a refugee and attempting to seek asylum in Australia. They cannot be seen.

Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues around the world through long-term photographic projects. He produced Condemned, an award-winning book of photographs about mental health issues in Africa. Robin’s project is about people who were neglected, sometimes hidden away and not to be seen.

Recently I was on assignment in Indonesia where I also photographed people in villages with mental health issues. According to the Indonesian government there are at least 18,800 people currently being shackled in Indonesia due to mental illness. On the island of Flores, I documented a number of these people who were being cared for by their families with the help of a Catholic priest, Father Aventinus Saur. Fr. Saur and his group provide support and food for these villagers who struggle to care for their sick family member.

Ahmad, whipped off his loincloth, shook back his shoulder length hair, smiled and posed for me. He couldn’t move far because he’s shackled. His legs are locked in a wooden contraption that his family built to keep him permanently held in a room of their house.
When Ahmed developed his mental health condition he started attacking people and harming himself. The family live in a poor rural area of Indonesia and there are no facilities for people with mental issues so a stockade is the safest option for all concerned.

Yohanes Sema, 60, suffers from mental illness and been chained to his bed since 2011. According to the Indonesian government there are at least 18,800 people currently being shackled in Indonesia. Family members say relatives are shackled to prevent them from doing harm to themselves and also because families do not know how to care for them.
Yohanes Sema, 60, suffers from mental illness and been chained to his bed since 2011.

I sat on the floor so I could see the chains that attached Yohanes’ leg to the bed. His wife, Maria Immaculata Sema, was constantly near Yohanes to make certain he was okay and I got the pictures I needed to show their heartrending circumstances.

Deo Gracias Kolobanus Abri, aged 55 suffers from mental illness. In 1999 his family locked him in stocks after he began pelting stones at traffic and beating his neighbours’. According to the Indonesian government there are at least 18,800 people currently being shackled in Indonesia. Family members say relatives are shackled to prevent them from doing harm to themselves and also because families do not know how to care for them.
Deo Gracias Kolobanus Abri, aged 55 suffers from mental illness.

Deo Gracias Kolobanus Abri began beating his neighbours and attacking traffic so his family shackled him to a beam. His wife, Maria Ragi, said that Deo had been locked up for seven years and, according to her, he always seemed happy. I certainly couldn’t stop him laughing while I was taking photographs. He was happy to be seen.

Politicians, pop stars, sporting teams and corporations all have their own photographers producing images to enhance their brand and help push out their message. Their use of photography as a marketing tool is a high priority. They want to be seen but only in a controlled environment.

It’s also a controlled environment, albeit somewhat different, in the room where Yohanes Angsel has been chained to the floor since 2004. The room is at the back of his parents’ house where the family can care for and look after Yohanes. Fr Saur and the families of these mentally ill people want them to be seen. They want to raise awareness, understanding and support for people who can’t speak for themselves.

Photographers working in this area are often accused of using and abusing the privilege of photographing these people. That may be true of some photographers but there are certain images I won’t reproduce. For instance, pictures that distort the subject’s face or exaggerate their situation gratuitously.

The question I often get asked is, “What good does it do these people?”

In the case of the Indonesian shoot referred to above, a set of images have been give to Fr Saur so the families involved will receive a copy of the pictures I took. Not important to us perhaps but in a poor rural village it will mean a lot.

Fr Saur will use the images for social media to raise the profile of the problems and the work his group are doing for these people. Already he has made contact with psychiatrists in Europe who are interested in working with him on these mental health issues.

Does it help when these images appear in the media?

Some years ago I stood at the bottom of a hospital bed watching a man hug his son who had stepped on a land mine and lost his leg, face and sight. They were shepherds and the father sold most of his property so he could take his son to the hospital. My image of the boy appeared in National Geographic and following publication many readers sent money to the magazine for the family. The magazine is American and the boy was in Iran, a country considered at the time an enemy of the USA. There’s a lot to be said for allowing people of goodwill to see the unseen.

For this assignment I carried with me a Fuji XT1 with a 10-24mm lens and a Fuji X-Pro2 with an 18mm lens. There was very little light in the places where we were working so often I would need to shoot at about 2000 ISO. I also carried with me two Sunpak ultra slim LED 09 video lights, which came in handy when I needed a small amount of fill-in light.