The only word to describe it is horrifying.
While we definitely cannot take standards of Western society and enforce them in Third World nations, as that would be unfair, the images that photographer Robin Hammond are stark, painful and ultimately horrifying by any standards. The New Zealand-born photographer was traveling through Sudan, on assignment to cover the nation’s referendum for independence, when he came across mentally disabled girl at the side of the road. When he asked his driver what happened to those with mental health issues, the driver casually told Hammond that mental health patients were imprisoned.
Hammond realized that there was more of a story than he thought, and so, the photographer made it his mission to capture on film those mentally ill patients throughout the region and in what conditions they were living in. While Hammond is definitely not one to shy away from troubling stories, as he has covered some of the biggest crises in Africa over recent years, including the use of rape as a weapon during the war in the Congo, this was a mission that was difficult for him.
He notes that those with mental health ailments are a “voiceless minority” and are often abused by entire societies, left to linger for years in prisons. If they have been kept home, they are often roped to a tree or bound and dragged from place to place if they do not do as instructed. There are photos of men and women tied to trees, stories of these patients only receiving food once a day or once every three days, glimpses of a life that simply should not be. In October 2013, Hammond was awarded the $30,000 W. Eugene Smith grant for Humanistic Photography for his attention to the devastating lack of mental health support that citizens in the sub-Saharan region received.
While North Americans have been given increasing attention to the support needed for mental health and the dignity that should be preserved when dealing with mental health problems throughout the continent, Hammond has made it painfully clear that work needs to be done in that regard in other nations. While North American society has enjoyed greater health support overall, and it can be argued that other nations do not have the financial resources to drive support towards mental health when so much energy is focused on physical health, what is happening in sub-Saharan Africa is nothing short of repugnant.
Hammond notes that as a journalist, he and others who go to war torn nations often leave as soon as the conflict as over, believing that the story is over. In reality, the story is only beginning, as infrastructures that were once in place to help those who were struggling were now destroyed and those who were on hand to provide the necessary supports were either killed or had moved to safer locales. That left those who were lingering with mental health problems shackled to the floor or other parts of a room in an effort to “control” them.
Hammond has shed an unwavering light on mental health in African nations, particularly in those nations plagued by war or conflict. In doing so, he has revealed to the rest of the world the desperation these patients are living with, and the deplorable conditions that they must endure daily. Hammond says he intends to continue to work to raise awareness of the problems in the region, but what is the rest of the western world going to do to help?
Opinion by Christina St-Jean