Robin Hammond has photographed strife in Africa for a dozen years, from life in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe to the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo. The Paris-based photographer doesn’t shy away from difficult stories.
In January of 2011 he was on assignment to document the Sudanese referendum for independence, which led to the creation of South Sudan. While driving through Juba, what would become the capital of the new country, Hammond spotted a young mentally disabled girl on the side of the road that gave him pause. Hammond turned to his driver, a local journalist, and asked him what happens to mentally ill people in Sudan.
“He very casually replied, ‘well, we put them in prisons,’” Hammond told Art Beat. “The story became about, yes, this is a very hopeful time for a potentially new country, but at what price had the people paid to reach this point?”
That’s when the photographer realized that he had stumbled upon an important story to tell. The project became his new mission and is now collected in a book titled “Condemned,” published this past year.
“After all these many years of war and all these deaths, with the government spending money on bullets and bombs rather than social welfare and development, the people who are most vulnerable in society, there’s nothing for them other than to put them in prison and shackle them to the floor.”
Hammond had never considered the long-term mental health effects on the Africans whose stories of war, famine, and conflict he had previous covered. But this story — the story of the mentally disabled girl on the side of the road — made the photographer realize there was much more to be told.
“We (as journalists) go, we cover famine or conflict or massive displacement and then when the flood waters recede or when the peace treaty is signed or when the people settle down in their refugee camps, we leave as if it’s over.”
But, Hammond explained, it’s not over for the people who live through the disaster.
“What is the mental health impact of living through conflict, living through famine, living through disaster?” said Hammond.
“When soldiers from our countries go and fight in wars, they come back and we know post-traumatic stress disorder is a common impact of being involved in those conflicts … People in Africa don’t suffer any less because they are African, but we don’t often think about the psychological impacts of the issues that they’re living through.”
But the New Zealand-born photographer didn’t only focus on the impact of crises on mental health, he also looked at those impacts on the structures set up to care for the mentally disabled.
“What happens to that infrastructure of care when there’s a war or when there’s massive poverty or in a refugee camp? Where are the staff? Where are the facilities?”
Hammond went back to countries where he had often been to document famine and conflict and focused on the mental health impacts of the stories in which he was already versed. In addition to South Sudan, he documented the care for mentally disabled people in Uganda, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also photographed in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where most of Nigeria’s oil comes from, in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
He found that mental health services don’t exist. Some have been destroyed. Oftentimes the experts — the doctors and nurses — leave their native countries because they have the resources to get out.
Instead, Hammond found that most people with mental illness are sent to prisons and, in almost every country he visited, the photographer saw people chained to the floor.
“That’s why the project is called ‘Condemned,’ because, for a lot of these people in these societies, that is what they are.”
The cover of his book makes that evident. It pictures a young man, about 18 or 19 years old, whom he met in the prison in Juba.
“He was shackled to the floor in this big thick iron that looked like pre-colonial slave trade shackles. The chain is only about 10 inches long so he can’t move around. He eats and sleeps and defecates all in the same place.”
Hammond saw the same kind of abuse everywhere he went, but for some reason this man stuck with him. Hammond thinks it might be because this was the photographer’s first time seeing a mentally ill man shackled to the floor with no place to move.
Two years later, Hammond ran into a field worker from Handicap International who had just been to the prison and had recognized the man in the photo. For the photographer, that is the hardest part.
“That guy that I photographed in that prison in Sudan, he is likely still there. And that little kid that I met in Somalia in the refugee camp who has been tied to a stick for the last 10 years, I’m sure he is still there. The young former child soldiers are still self-medicating with drugs because they’re still waking up in the middle of the night screaming,” said Hammond.
“It’s an ongoing thing. In a way, I feel like if my job is to raise awareness, if my job is to make a difference with this, then I feel like I’ve completely failed because these guys are in exactly the same place. If they haven’t died yet, they haven’t moved.”
But the photographer hasn’t given up on helping the subjects of his images.
“I have a real deep belief in the power of art and media to shape how we see and regard the world and treat the people in it … the whole point of the work — of any real art of photography — is to somehow make a connection with the viewer.”
Hammond doesn’t want this project to simply be a piece of journalism; he wants it to be a piece of activism and he hopes that his photographs will spur action. He receives weekly emails from people asking how they can help and he has a laundry list of ways that he is expanding the scope and reach of the project.
Last year, he received the W. Eugene Smith award, which will help fund continued work in the region. He plans to use that money to revisit the same countries and go deeper into the project, including telling the stories of the people on the ground who are fighting for the dignity of the mentally ill.
“While there aren’t that many of them and while there are little-to-no resources, there are some people who are working very hard under very difficult circumstances to make a difference on this … It would provide a little bit of hope, which to be honest, is really hard to find with this issue.”
Hammond is also hoping to raise money for an anti-stigma campaign in Africa. He believes that it’s important to raise awareness not just in the western world, but in the places where these issues are taking place.
In the end, Hammond wants his viewers to know that most of the mentally disabled people he interacted with were coherent and aware of both their condition and their often cruel treatment.
“For some of them, it was the first time they were able to express what was going on and they had someone to listen to them,” said Hammond.
“Mental health is an incredibly neglected issue everywhere, but especially in countries like this, where there are so many competing priorities.”
Hammond just returned from another trip to Africa, this time in the hope of combating Western conceptions of the continent. He flew to Lagos — a mega-city with growing wealth and prosperity — to provide an alternative to the “death and misery” often displayed in his work.
“I really hope that if we, as in the West, can see Africans having the same hopes and aspirations as us, that hopefully we can connect with them a bit more,” said Hammond. “And, when the bad stuff does happen, we can have the same empathy for them as we would if it happened in any European or American community.”
See more photographs from “Condemned” below: