University of Texas Press
September 2008, 152 pages, $45.00
Eugene Richards, a documentary photographer, joined forces with Mental Disability Rights International to create this disturbing book of photographs. Traveling to Mexico, Armenia, Paraguay, Hungary, Kosovo, and Argentina, Richards and the group wormed their way into mental hospitals, where Richards photographed the unremittingly grim conditions.
The black and white photos make less attempt at composition than at the documentarian action of seeking to capture the moment. The result makes Diane Arbus’ late work look like snaps from a child’s birthday party: a naked teenager huddled in a cage barely large enough for him to squat in, a Mexican girl who spends her waking hours straitjacketed: when unbound, she chews her hands, which are scarred and infected. An elderly woman huddled in a wheelchair, wild-eyed, and emaciated. A cold, bare room filled with men in various stages of undress, the concrete floor pooled with urine. Men shrieking in filthy showers as attendants wash them with buckets of icy water. Men, women, and children bound to beds, underweight and dirty.
Given the dearth of mental health services available in our (still) comparatively wealthy nation, the marginalized, even brutal treatment of the mentally impaired elsewhere in the world comes as no surprise. Yet I admit I looked at the photographs and watched the accompanying DVD (really, the book’s images set to Richards’ narration, which appears at the back of the text) with some frustration. Richards’ work is heartfelt and noble, but of limited appeal. At $45.00, A Procession of Them isn’t likely to find a wide readership. Rather, it will reach mental health professionals, academics, and aficionados of photography.
I admit some of my frustration arises from compassion fatigue. Living as I do in the San Francisco Bay Area, I see a procession of mentally ill, homeless people daily. Until her unit went into foreclosure, I endured the screaming of a mentally ill upstairs neighbor who heard voices. I complained to my husband about A Procession. I said I felt it was a misguided attempt. No, he said. Just because there are problems here doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to suffering elsewhere.