by Roland Schneider
Book Review by Padraig Murphy
Published by: Der Alltag/Parkett
Having suffered a personal breakdown, Roland Schneider, a professional photographer, entered a psychiatric hospital in the summer of 1987. He subsequently used the camera in an attempt to come to terms with his illness. What emerged was a set of intriguing images, first exhibited in the hospital in 1988 and later printed in the book Entre-Temps.
My initial browse through this book of 100 black and white images sounded a double dissonance: firstly a troubled mind and the cold claustrophobic world of hospital corridors felt out of tune with that red wine feeling and a summer breeze on the Aran Islands. At a higher pitch, an intense subjective exploration of one's own mental state clashed with an on going array of objective recordings of 'Asylums' in the Humanistic tradition of Documentary Photography.
Schneider's main concern is one of personal rehabilitation whereas for a large percentage of those photographers concerned with Reportage, there exists a questionable social commitment through images of misery and poverty.
His search for meaning is in sharp contrast with some photojournalists' statements about the 'other', the 'other' being on the margins of society. Photojournalists expect to tell the truth, comfortable in the belief that their work is a window into someone else's reality. Schneider and his fellow 'inmates' would be suitable candidates for just such aesthetically pleasing images of social victimisation. His search is in contrast played out in images which never seem formulated, each a small discovery to be reflected upon with the aid of accompanying captions placed overleaf. In contrast the photojournalist's search is not unlike that of Sontag's tourist who in search of the photogenic as a means of certifying experience, manages instead to deny any form of reality. The results are a group of well taken photographs obeying the classical laws of composition.
In a sense Entre Temps gives evidence of a social actor who confronts the complexities of his own life and ponders the significance of elements within his own environment. He questions his opinions of fellow patients and even his right to photograph them. The inclusion of a man seated by a window, his foot cocked in an aggressive manner and captioned "If you photograph me, I will throw this chair in your face (but he didn't)" attest to this.
Equally those photojournalists who have realised the complex nature of representation have not been afraid to address such issues as the relation between photographer and subject (such as the influences and limitations of one's own culture). Photographers which have produced memorable pieces of work are for example Gilles Peres' Telex Iran, Susan Meiselas' Nicaragua and Alex Webb's Under a Grudging Sun. Such photographers realise that this supposed window into the 'other's' reality is at best only partly transparent. These are bodies of work which deal with their subjective experience of an event with the intention of conveying its complexity. More recently, Dutch photographer Bertien Van Manen in her work A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters has taken photojournalism a step further by challenging the aesthetic mores of traditional reportage. This form of aesthetic and ideological questioning is forced upon us when viewing Schneider's work. There are no simple answers provided for himself as creator, participant actor, photographer or for us as viewers.
Paul Feyer's novel Comforts of madness reveals one of the main prejudices held by the 'healthy' majority against the 'sick' minority-the difficulty in acceptance of the fact that to be mentally ill is not to be without similar needs, hopes and regrets. Schneider is aware of this; the uncertainty and confusion that is present in the pictures is not intentional, it just simply exists. These images and accompanying captions (more like reflections) play out the role of both mirror and sounding board, each utilised to seek meaning, each a rung on the ladder of his ascent to a greater state of well-being.
We attempt to understand how his mind works, how he himself attempts the same and wonder how these images aid him in his search for meaning. Why the emphasis on such things as radios, phones (a desire to communicate with the external world?), fairy tales (a recollection of memories and a will to dream beyond his present circumstances?), door knobs and handles (symbolic of the desire to escape?): an image of the edge of an open door, one side in shadows and the other bathed in light is compared to the globe, night and day. His whole world within this closed environment but not without hope.
This body of work is one of the few truly created for an audience of one (the author himself). For these images only ever served the purpose of rehabilitation (the book a probable after-thought). In John Berger's essay Appearances, it is suggested that in every act of looking there is an expectation of meaning, one which is a constituent of the relation between the human capacity to perceive and the coherence of appearances. The coherence of appearances constitutes a half-language and is completed when the photographer somehow manages to give meaning to the inherent ambiguity that exists.
Schneider's striving for meaning is as pure an example of such a search as possible. Though captions are included, the ideas are as a rule instigated within the images. An out of focus face fills the bottom left hand corner of a frame, the angle of a lower level ceiling cutting diagonally from the face across the image half in shadow half in light. An idea of damage is suggested, relating the crack on the wall to a human distress (as confirmed in the foreword). Many of these in turn seem to be just simple confirmations - the radio, the bath, the exit sign. Some of these are captioned humorously; "The Throne" (toilet), "ha ha ha" (a clothes hook installed upside down) and "Silent Radio" (a hair pin protruding upwards from a head of curlers). A chain in a sink becomes indicative of Schneider's confusion; on reading the caption, you realise that although he understands the role of the rubber stopper he cannot understand its relation to the chain. His emphasis on seemingly irrelevant objects and elements shows the level of importance these things take on when one is confined to a closed environment.
In a set of blurred images (here his medicine affects his vision) we are again confronted with the fact that perhaps Schneider is unknowable, that his work will always remain beyond complete comprehension. The question of how much can be read into all of these images remains open but one cannot deny its raw freshness, its honesty, its pure search for understanding through imagery and its specificity in terms of context. A book not easily labelled. One that feeds off ambiguity to reveal its unique power as a means of documentation and artistic expression.