My work tells the tale of mental illness today. This is the fourth chapter on freedom lost (after Encerrados, Paco and Prigionieri), continuing my extensive, in-depth study exploring the world of people hidden far from the public gaze. Venturing into the realm of mental distress is a complex, delicate and demanding experience, and the challenge of presenting it through photography is even more complex, delicate and demanding. Who are these “mad” men and women? What do they feel? In a bid to find answers to these questions, I had to become part of their universe. Their movements and expressions are lost in an inner world, often totally cut off from the surrounding environment which they may see as hostile or even terrifying, a world that can lead to self-destruction.
The starting point I chose was Africa, there where mental illness has only recently been given formal recognition. This makes it difficult to work out how many people are mentally ill, and to find where they live. Often they wander the streets of huge cities, or they can be hidden away in remote villages. Mental disorders are often seen as an evil caused by non-human, supernatural and sometimes threatening elements. This is the case in north-western Africa, in countries such as Benin, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire where voodoo witchdoctors consider the mentally ill to be demons and tie them to trees in the villages. Fortunately there are some wonderful people such as Grégoire Ahongbonon, a missionary who for the past twenty years has been working to have the mentally ill treated with dignity in special centers which he has set up.