A photograph can be worth a thousand words

There has long been a tradition of using photographs to capture, reveal, and expose. A photograph has the ability to arouse emotion – oftentimes, some would argue, more effectively than a verbal or written description.

In a recent article in Social Dynamics, Rory du Plessis of the University of Pretoria (South Africa) has brought to life a case example of the power photographs can hold. In an analysis of two sets of photographs produced by the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum between 1890 and 1907, du Plessis has revealed two very different faces of the institution – especially regarding the racial makeup of the patient population.

The Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum opened in 1875 in what is now the Eastern Cape Province. Like other South African asylums of the period, Grahamstown adopted the moral treatment philosophy from Europe which viewed all aspects of the institution and the activities in which the patients were engaged as therapeutic in nature. During the period of focus of this particular study, Grahamstown was working to rebuild its image after receiving heavy criticisms regarding its success as a therapeutic institution. A new superintendent, Dr. Thomas Duncan Greenlees, arrived in 1890 and introduced a series of new recreational activities including: “picnics at neighbouring seaside towns, dances, dramatic entertainments, concerns, magic lantern entertainments, social evenings, cricket, and instrumental band, and croquet and lawn tennis for the women.” At the same time, Greenless also created a system of differential treatment for the patient population of Grahamstown with only the White paying patients benefitting from these new activities and Black patients being engaged only in labour projects around the institution.

The photographs examined by du Plessis bring to light these two very different worlds of the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum.

The first set of photographs were created explicitly for public consumption. These were published in annual reports and the institution’s own periodical (which was sometimes reprinted in medical journals). As du Plessis highlights, these images were carefully orchestrated in order to portray an image of a successfully curative environment. White patients were portrayed in decorated rooms, dressed respectfully, and engaged in recreational activities popular during the period. Black patients, conversely, were featured in drab environments, oftentimes engaged in manual work, in scenarios of passivity and docility. du Plessis describes this set of public photographs as a “marketing tool” intended to normalize the activities of a curative environment (and recruit paying patients). In this context, the success of the supposed curative environment for White paying patients was evaluated through representations of class and wealth whereas the curative environment for Black patients was evaluated through the level of compliance engendered.

Patients are seen being physically restrained by
the hands of unseen attendants and nurses

The second set of photographs reveal a very different component of the institution’s history: its stories of resistance, fear, and anxiety. These were created for internal use as part of the patient casebooks. From 1890 onwards, all patients of the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum were photographed upon their admission. Much like the mug shots used by police departments, the admission photos focused on the face and upper body of the patient. In these silent portraits, du Plessis uncovered a range of powerful emotions exerted by the Black patients that were in stark contrast to the passivity represented in the first set of photographs. In acts interpreted as resistance, patients are seen in the casebook photographs being physically restrained by the hands of unseen attendants and nurses. In others, their gaze is averted as an act of defiance. A few other painful examples reveal the fear or anxiety expressed on the faces of those admitted to the institution.

As du Plessis highlights in his article: “the taking of a photograph is never neutral.” And more so: a picture may speak louder than words.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org
du Plessis, R. (2014). Photographs from the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum, South Africa, 1890–1907 Social Dynamics, 1-31 DOI: 10.1080/02533952.2014.883784

Post written for the BPS Research Digest by Jennifer Bazar, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto/Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care and an Occasional Contributor to the Advances in the History of Psychology blog.

Further reading from The Psychologist: ‘The house of cure’, and ‘Such tender years’.