Condemned: The Award-Winning Work of Robin Hammond on Mental Illness in Africa

Breaking News: Robin Hammond was awarded this year's W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography Wednesday, a $30,000 prize, in support of his long-term project on mental illness in Africa. The article about his book of his photographs, Condemned, published by FotoEvidence for its annual FotoEvidence Book Award depicting this subject, is below.


"Everywhere I went I found an entire section of society in chains."

-- Robin Hammond during an interview with FotoEvidence

During a trip to Juba, South Sudan to cover the referendum for independence, photojournalist Robin Hammond came across a story he had never seen adequately depicted, when he saw, as he tells FotoEvidence, a mentally ill girl begging at the side of the road. He asked the driver of the car what the treatment for the mentally disabled is in Juba, and he received the following answer: they were put in prison.

This began the journey for Hammond that would culminate in a book of photographs titled Condemned, published by FotoEvidence as the winner of the organization's 2013's Book Award.

Hammond, 38, from Wellington, New Zealand, was originally inspired by the work of W. Eugene Smith when as a student of photography, he first saw Smith's book Minamata.

According to the New York Times photo blog, Lens, the impact of the book was profound:

"I had no idea that a photo or a series of photos could move me like that... I didn't know that a photo could make me feel a connection with people I had never met. From that day on, I knew the sort of work that I wanted to pursue -- human rights and development issues."

Since then, he has contributed to international newspapers and magazines including National Geographic, Time Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, and Polka Magazine, has exhibited at Visa Pour L'Image, and has been a four-time winner of the Amnesty International award for Human Rights journalism, among other international recognition and awards for his work.

Condemned is an extraordinary culmination of what has become an important passion for Hammond, who believes that the media rarely depicts, as he says in the FotoEvidence interview, "the long-term impacts of war, famine, and displacement."

These crises will inherently contribute to conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), among other mental illness, which crisis- and war-torn countries are not politically, socially, or economically equipped with the capacities to treat. Instead, treatment, Hammond says, is often relegated to confinement in prisons, or being placed in the care of spiritual healers by families for whom such illness is considered a spiritual problem. That, or they are ignored by society, left to find whatever means they can to survive.

Instead of adequately treating illness, in many cases, these "solutions" only exacerbate the problem via abuse, discrimination, and neglect, if not even torture in those suffering being treated like criminals.

In discussing what he saw in Juba, in which mentally ill were incarcerated, he said, "Many didn't see their treatment of people with mental disability as abusive. It is, in a way, even more disturbing that they considered their treatment as normal and in no way cruel."

Especially hard is seeing the impact of mental illness on children. This included seeing a child tied to a stick in a refugee camp in Somalia "for 11 of his 13 years," or a child locked in a cell among "dangerously insane men" in Nigeria, a girl who had escaped from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) whom he met in DR Congo, or child soldiers in Liberia, who were forced to commit atrocities while in service to their adult captors.

In terms of help available from the international community, in which immediate disaster or crisis response during war or famine often does not extend adequately to mental illness, if at all, such lack of attention is then also ignored as a priority in terms of African nations' post-crisis development efforts.

"African countries that have been through disasters often rely on the assistance of outside agencies. If international non-governmental organizations and other donors are not going to acknowledge mental health as an integral part of primary health care and give it the attention it has to other important issues such as HIV, TB, Malaria then it is unlikely African governments will give mental health any significant attention."

Further, "in disaster, education is also weakened, which results in a lack of knowledge about mental health. It also drives away mental health professionals who would otherwise be able to provide care and teach their societies about it."

Where there are advocates for mental illness or limited resources: "everywhere they are under resourced and struggling."

"Mental health is a human rights issue," Hammond says, in being asked how he hopes his work will influence policy. "Making people aware is the first step. Having an audience connect to the issue is the next. I hope the stories of the people in the photos and the images themselves will stimulate the connection. From that, I hope action will follow."

The FotoEvidence interview referenced here and photographs from Condemned will next be appearing in the 2013 Print/Digital edition of the MIPJ on Climate Change, Resource Conflict, the Environment and Human Security to be published in November/December 2013.