I was back in Rotterdam last week to photograph more suitcases from Willard Asylum. Check this out for the background of the project.
I am slowly beginning to formulate a plan for how to proceed.
Even though an inventory of each case has been prepared by the museum, I prefer not to know the contents before I begin taking pictures.
There is something about being surprised by what’s inside that helps me connect with the person.
And I want the connection because I am trying to say something about the lives they lived before arriving at the asylum.
Anna’s first case contained mostly clothes.
I believe the inventory was done just as she arrived at Willard.
The museum is very careful about caring for each individual item.
Anna had some really beautiful clothes.
Just about all of her clothes had nametags, which I have to assume were sewn in before her time at Willard.
Below is the second of her cases.
This one had fewer clothes and more personal items.
For some reason, I really like the paper that the museum uses to protect the cases and their contents.
I especially like the design of this one.
When I photographed the abandoned buildings on the earlier project, I tried never to move items that I came across. This is so different for me as I need to lay the items out in order to photograph, but I don’t want to make the arrangements look too studied. I actually work very fast when I am shooting.
This case contained several hats, and an incredible pair of shoes.
There were also some indications of her life before Willard.
The hair pin packaging is beautiful.
I am not sure if the residents of Willard had access to their possessions during the time they were living there, but somehow I think not. So this letter would probably have been received before she arrived.
And since it was not addressed to Anna, I wonder about its importance to her.
Thanks so much to Craig Williams at the New York State Museum for allowing me access. As I mentioned in the earlier post, I would really appreciate any feedback. I still don’t have an outlet for this work, and no funds to jump into it in any concerted manner, but I hope to keep chipping away. There is alot of information about the people attached to these suitcases and should I go much further with the project, I would like to be able to include some biographical background to accompany the photos.
I’m not sure yet where I am going with this project, but I wanted to post some shots for feedback. / In 1995, the New York State Museum staff were moving items out of The Willard Psychiatric Center. It was being closed by the State Office of Mental Health, and would eventually become a state run drug rehabilitation center. Craig Williams was made aware of an attic full of suitcases in the pathology lab building. The cases were put into storage when their owners were admitted to Willard, and since the facility was set up to help people with chronic mental illness, these folks never left.
The Museum made arrangements to have the suitcases moved to the Rotterdam storage facility, where staff have catalogued each one, and have carefully wrapped and preserved their contents.
An exhibit of a selection of the cases was produced by the Museum and was on display in Albany in 2003 or 2004. It has also traveled around New York State. It was very moving to read the stories of these people, and to see artifacts from their lives before they became residents of the Asylum.
This particular case belonged to Freda B…..(I would really like to use her whole name here, but there is a massive debate going on as to whether people who have been at Willard and other psyc centers need to be protected by privacy laws. I come down strongly on the side that it is dehumanizing and stigmatizing to pretend that she doesn’t have a surname.)
I am so interested in these cases. I like the idea of documenting the care and energy that the Museum has put into them. And I am totally wigged out by being able to photograph a representation of the lives of people who struggled so much to make it in a very stressful and confusing world.
It is still early days, and I am struggling a bit as to how I should approach this. The cases have been photographed before, but in a totally different manner. The first hurdle seems to be cleared; I have access. The next is time, which I think I can manage. The big one is funding, which is something on which I need to work. And finally, what could come out of the project. An exhibit would be nice, or maybe a book.
I have been working on some ideas with Dr Karen Miller, a writer and psychiatrist. She has also been spending time with the cases, and doing research on the lives of people who were at Willard. We’ll see what happens.
In the meantime, feel free to send this link around to anyone who might be interested. And any feedback would be appreciated.