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Italy’s ‘hidden madness’ exposed

French photographer Raymond Depardon doesn’t believe in staging people or their surroundings in his work.

The tenet came from the beginning of his professional life, when he was a journalist.

“I am a naturalist, I prefer photographs that are very simple,” he said in a phone interview.

“I like to leave things like they are, like a journalist.”

That philosophy is evident in the stark black-and-white images of his latest collection, “Manicomio, The Hidden Madness.”

They show the harsh reality of life inside Italian mental institutions in the 1970s. Tufts of a man’s hair poke out of a rope cage as he strains his head against the top in an effort to stand up straight in the small enclosure. The frizzy halos of elderly women’s hair are backlit by daylight in a spartan room. A thin man pulls closed the waist of his too-large pants as he stands in a sunlit courtyard, while a naked man behind him appears to trip and fall.

Depardon was asked by Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia to come to the Italian city of Trieste, where Basaglia served as the superintendent of a mental hospital, to document the reality inside these asylums.

The avant-garde doctor wanted to close down the state mental hospitals across the country.

“He said to me, we have to do these photos to make people understand what it’s like to be closed up in there,” Depardon remembered.

“Take these pictures, otherwise they won’t believe us,” he said, recounting the psychiatrist’s words.

Depardon, now 71, described what he saw there as similar to the conditions in concentration camps.

“These were people who were lost already. There were people in rope cages, some who screamed like animals. They calmed them, but they didn’t really try to cure them,” he remembered.

Basaglia had other ideas. He wanted to shut down the state institutions and have patients who really needed care to be helped in community-based facilities. He also wanted to change the admissions process, which was frighteningly lax.

Before the doctor’s reforms were enacted as Law 180 in 1978, anyone could commit another person to a mental hospital. The bar was low; often someone only had to be described as “dangerous” to be locked away, sometimes for an indefinite period of time. Police became the most common source of referral to have people committed, according to the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Depardon said sometimes he could relate to the subjects in the photographs he took there, in Italy, and in some of the war zones in which he worked around the world.

“I realized I took a lot of pictures of people enclosed within walls,” he said. “I recognized the anguish of being closed off, maybe because it was within myself as well.”

He covered the wars in Algeria and in Vietnam, but maybe not so well, he said.

“I wasn’t a very good war photographer. But that may have saved my life. I know many other photographers who died in those places.”

Depardon started taking photographs of his family’s farm in Villefranche-sur-Saone at the age of 12 and later moved to Paris to expand his knowledge.

His love of simple plateaus for his images was born there and is seen throughout much of his work.

“I like to take pictures of daily things, normal things,” said Depardon, explaining the theme of his recent photography exposition at Le Grand Palais in Paris. “Daily life is global.”

In the 1960s, he covered the Algerian war as a photographer for France’s Defense Department, thereby fulfilling his mandatory military service. He co-founded the Gamma photography agency in 1966 and traveled to some of the world’s most dangerous zones at the time.

Since then, he’s produced dozens of books and directed more than 30 films and documentaries. He revisits the asylum theme in at least two: “Urgences,” about the emergency room of a large psychiatric hospital in Paris, and “San Clemente,” a documentary in which he filmed daily life in a mental hospital off the coast of Venice, Italy.

- Alanne Orjoux, CNN