Portraits of mental illness in times of war

Photographing mental health patients in institutions in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Palestine and Haiti.

Manu Brabo | | Humanitarian crises, War & Conflict, Health

It was February 2009 when I first visited a psychiatric institution in a conflict zone. It was in Bethlehem, Palestine, and I was curious about how the occupation was affecting the patients there. To my mind, this was a way to show an important side of the war - one often neglected by the mainstream media.

I soon realised that in addition to the hardships inflicted upon the general population by the presence of Israeli forces, a further burden was shouldered by the mentally ill in Palestinian society: social oblivion. 

Since then, I have tried to photograph psychiatric patients in the different countries I have reported from: Haiti, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Palestine - places with different cultures, religions, races and socioeconomic circumstances. 

I have reached no conclusion and found no philosophical explanation for what I have seen: the starving and disease-ridden mentally ill after the earthquake in Haiti; the Libyan mental institution inmates used during the battle for Tripoli; the Syrian patients trapped on the front line in the old city of Aleppo; or the cold, dark winter under heavy Ukrainian army shelling on the outskirts of Donetsk. 

There seems to be a pattern to the way we treat our mentally ill during times of hardship and war - but I'm not yet sure that I have found the words to weave a logical narrative through these stories. 

So, instead, I have compiled them into one story - depicting the patients, the institutions, the doctors, nurses and volunteers I have met along the way; those affected by something worse and more permanent than the war unfolding around them - oblivion. 

Oblivion that was there before the conflict started; oblivion that will remain once the fighting has ended.

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