In 2012 and 2013 my wife and daughter were each separately diagnosed with a severe psychiatric disorder. They were hospitalized for lengthy stays; it would be three and one half years before my daughter would live at home. Almost a year later I purchased a camera and enrolled in evening classes. From the beginning my work focused on homeless people, nearly all drug users, living in several locations in downtown Boston. I spent hours most days sitting, talking, photographing and I came to know a small group of street-friends, with whom I have developed close relationships.
The social and economic gap between us is large and disturbing. I am a visitor in their world and my understanding of their lives will always be incomplete and uncomfortable at times when differences and disparities come to the fore. But, as our relationships developed I realized that photographic portraiture could express their dignity and human worth, as well as the unpleasant truths about their lives.
It is important to me that my street-friends have an understanding of my story, and we swap histories freely without judgment. I find that intimacy and trust allow me to convey the complexity of their stories and make better images. My image making is guided in part by late medieval crucifixions, the starving Buddhas of Pakistan and other depictions of dignity amidst suffering, and the task of creating beauty out of painful material. I want to make formally beautiful images, which will bring viewers to a new relationship with the complexity and suffering being depicted.
I only take pictures with permission, usually given in part for money or other goods, and also the promise that the image itself will be respectful, pleasing, and used fairly. We discuss the contexts in which their portraits will be shown, and they are comfortable about these possibilities. Good intentions can’t be enough to offset the risks of misrepresentation. Vigilance and frequent consultation are necessary in this project.
There is also a moral dimension to my work. My subjects live lives of suffering and pain, in plain view of others. I don’t believe my photography will effect any change, but I hope to bear witness.
I photograph in color and I prefer natural light. These elements help me avoid the clichés often seen in photographs about drugs and homelessness.
Grace and I met in college in 1981. I married her partially because she was the happiest person I knew; the only person who could lift me out from my occasional dumps, with superhuman energy and unflappable good humor. These traits faded a little with the birth of our children, at first almost imperceptible, except to those who knew her well. After the birth of our third child, the change was visible to all. She began to experience delusions of various kinds, so small at first but soon became much worse. Throughout all this time she had the best psychiatric care, but all the doctors could say was “the disease must declare itself”. Grace was diagnosed with bipolar 1 and was hospitalized in 2012. Almost immediately, she began to get well with medication. Today Grace is mostly recovered, and remarkably much like her 19 year old self of 1981. Few can say that about themselves.
These portraits were made collaboratively, as a way for the two of us to process and understand what she went through. They were made in and around our home, almost entirely indoors, using natural light almost exclusively. Mirroring her varying emotional states, the images provide an aesthetic of claustrophobia. The use of natural light is traditionally considered the most flattering which serves as key element of both preserving Grace’s humanity and not reducing her to patient.
My images are highly patterned for both aesthetic and metaphorical reasons. A body surrounded in a variety of patterns serves as an apt metaphor for the difficulties of mental illness as patients and their families struggle to find what is real.