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"We work in color"

NPPAOU reflects on the relationship between mental illness and photography
Nov 16, 2009
By Colleen Kiphart

The Ohio University chapter of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPAOU) and the School of Visual Communication recently hosted a panel of nine members of the Athens Photographic Project (APP) for a discussion of the relationships between photography and mental illness.

It was an evening of peer discussion among photographers and emotional revelations. Members of the APP came to share the history of mental health recovery and to show the lives of the people living the process.

The APP is a regional art program offering 10-week photography classes -- with introductory and advanced levels -- to men and women in the Athens area recovering from mental illness.

Panel member Nate Thompson, a 2002 photojournalism graduate and current APP program director, said the organizations have a long history together.

"We were approached by the NPPAOU to do this presentation," he said. "VisCom has been an active supporter of the APP since 2000. It has been a very positive relationship."

The presentation was divided into the history of the organization, a slideshow on the historical connection between metal illness and photography by APP teaching assistant Jim Korpi, followed by an open discussion between the panel and audience.

"There is a stigma surrounding the language of mental illness in our society," Thompson said. "Not using that vocabulary often results in isolation for many people. Regardless of how long a photographer has been involved [with this project]; each continues to look at their daily lives and our community from a fresh, creative perspective."

Korpi's presentation, which opened with grim, Victorian images of the mentally ill as patients in hospitals, progressed to photojournalistic images and culminated with the results of two juried exhibitions by APP participants.

"It is important to notice that we are not saying that any of these photographs are right or better than others," he said.

The pictures inspired a passionate discussion afterwards, including comments that past images of the mentally ill were exploitative.

"You have to remember that they were taken by people outside of the experience," said Stephanie Schmidt, a panel member and nine year participant. "They were looking only at the illness."

That opinion was seconded by APP founder and former program director Elise Sanford.

"Those historical images are very upsetting," she said. "Yours [the APP?s photographs] are real, authentic and deeply felt. The others were looking for something scary."

Authentication and identity were hallmarks of the discussion and of the APP's artistic work.

"Photography reminds us that we are absolutely connected to the world," Thompson said. "I believe this connection is one of the most important things to remember when faced with a medical condition that can make a person feel separate and isolated from the world and other people."

All panel members agreed that they were grateful for the program and the opportunity to speak about it.

"This is everything to me," said nine year veteran Andrew Angelson.

As for what they hope this event accomplishes, Christi Hysell, who has been with APP for two years, said, "We hope that this gives people a better understanding of mental illness. In the past all the photographs of people with mental illness were in asylums and black and white. We work in color."

The APP is always looking for volunteers. To serve as a teaching assistant in a class or offer your help to the APP in any other capacity, contact Nate Thomson at athensphoto@earthlink.net or 740-592-1525


Published: Nov 16, 2009 10:08 AM


Jim Korpi, a teaching assistant with the Athens Photographic Project, prepares the slideshow he used to illustrate the historical relationship between photography and mental illness.


Korpi shows an example of a photojournalistic approach to mental illness. The image is from photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark's book "Ward 81." Mark photographed the women in Ward 81 in the Oregon State Hospital, best known as the filming location for the Academy Award-winning film "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest."

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