Why did you decide to shoot a project on mental health?
It’s one of those forgotten issues. The project is about trying to – and it sounds like a cliché – give [people] a voice. Even though some of them are very articulate and are able to talk about their plight, they’re not allowed to advocate for their rights because they’re considered crazy.
So it’s up to us, who have access to the media and these audiences, to speak up. That’s the point of doing the work.
How do you prepare to visit countries you’re unfamiliar with?
I pack my bags and just go. I have to figure it out when I’m there! There are 53 countries in Africa and each is very different from the other. There’s not one rule or strategy.
In some of these facilities the treatment of people with mental disabilities was just horrendous. Some would let me come in and photograph because they didn’t actually get that what they were doing was in any way wrong. Others were aware their treatment was in some cases abusive and they wouldn’t have let me in if they realised what I was doing, so I had to go in undercover.
On an emotional level, how did you deal with what you were seeing?
There are cases where I’ve taken photographs and left and it still haunts me at night – I wish I hadn’t. There’s this one little boy I wished I could have picked up and taken out of this institution. It could have caused problems for me later, but what he’s been through… those kind of things weigh quite heavily on my mind.
If I’d just photographed [the situation] and it went onto a gallery wall, I’d have difficulties with what I was doing. But the fact that I and a group of other people were trying to use the work to raise awareness and make a difference in people’s lives makes me feel a little bit better.
What gear did you use and why?
Most of it was with a Canon 5D Mark II, then I changed cameras and got a Mark III. I like to use prime lenses, not zooms. Generally I use quite short lenses – I want the audience to feel like they’re in the picture.
A lot of young photographers have an obsession with kit. I tell people this analogy if they like my photographs and they say, “You must have a great camera.” If you have a great meal you don’t say to the chef, “You must have a great oven.” These are just tools.
How did you fund the project?
I went through the whole gambit of ways to fund a photography project. In South Sudan it was a commission from the Sunday Times. When I went to Uganda, I was doing a job for a charity. I stayed on with my own money for another three weeks.
I self-funded work to Somalia and into the Congo and Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. While I was in Somalia a big famine struck and I documented that and was able to sell some pictures so I came away without losing money from that trip.
Then I ran a crowdfunding campaign and managed to get $20,000 to continue to work. I also applied for a small grant and got some assistance from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting. Documentary photographers have to be just as creative in the ways we fund our projects as we are at taking pictures.
Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?
I’ve been working quite a long time as a photojournalist and before I started the work on mental health I came to an early-mid career crisis where I was unsatisfied with the kind of work I was doing.
I wanted to get back to the roots of why I did photography in the first place and that was to raise awareness about the issues. The whole black and white thing was about nostalgia. It was about me getting back to why I wanted to do photography. It was a personal thing.
What was it like to win awards for the project?
It’s great! Like many artists I’m pretty insecure and it’s good to have people tell me that the work is good.
I’ve just won a World Press Photo award and the exhibition that includes some of my work will go around 100 cities in the world and maybe three or four million people will see it so that’s a great part of it.
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All images © Robin Hammond.