Mental Baggage

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Jon Crispin photographed the old suitcases and belongings of patients from New York's Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane. The effects were left at the asylum between the 1910s and the 1960s and were eventually relegated to storage in an attic. Hunter Oatman-Stanford asked Crispin about the asylum and the project: 

Willard was a facility for people with chronic mental illness. Originally, doctors thought that all you had to do was remove people from the stresses and strains of society, give them a couple of years to get their life together, and they’d get better. Eventually people realized they needed facilities where patients could come and never leave. There’s some question as to whether or not the patients themselves packed their suitcases, or if their families did it for them. But the suitcases sent along with them generally contained whatever the incoming patient wanted or thought they might need. 

Right now, due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the project remains anonymous. But Crispin thinks names should be attached to the photographs: 

I’m still trying to figure out how I can name these people, because I think it dehumanizes them even more not to. People who’ve been in mental institutions themselves have said, “Your project is very moving to me, but I’m very disappointed that you have to obscure names.” I think the stigma of mental illness has evolved from something shameful to something that’s much more medical and much more accepted. It just happens to people. 

(Belongings from Dmytre’s suitcase above. You can see a selection of his photos next spring at the San Francisco Exploratorium. Image courtesy of Crispin.)