Yvonne Kennan talks to Louis Quail
Issue 90 Summer 2017
View Contents ▸
View photographs from 'Big Brother' ▸
YK: What inspired you to create such an intimate project?
LQ: I think Justin is a survivor. I want to celebrate that along with his individuality. I started this book shortly after my mother died. Part of me would liked to have photographed my mother but I didn’t feel comfortable. I thought I might be exploiting my relationship on some level. My mother had schizophrenia as well. By the time my mother died I was older and more confident in the idea that it is really important to give people like Justin a voice. I am a believer that worse than being intruded upon is to be ignored. Another theme to the book is that mental health is part of us, it’s not all of us. It is important to show Justin’s hobbies and the rest of his life.
YK: How did you come to use documentary photography?
LQ: When I left college in 1993 my attitude was just to make a living. Later on I became interested in using photography to talk about subjects that might be seen in an art gallery or a book rather than a magazine. For many years I was an editorial photographer with commercial jobs on the side. You get to the point where you want to do something more interesting and not be defined by the paycheck. So I decided that when I pick up the camera I really want to say something. The last two projects I have done, Desk Job and Before They Were Fallen and then Big Brother, are all defined by a different attitude to photography.
YK: Did the experience of commercial work and Before They Were Fallen encourage you to make the more personal project, Big Brother?
LQ: Yeah, definitely. When I went to Kosovo in 2001, I was travelling around and reacting against news photography which I thought was sensationalist. I felt like you got compassion fatigue and there was space to do something fresh. I went with a softbox and I was doing all these pictures for magazines. I felt very aware that I wasn’t a professional journalist and I felt guilty that I was interviewing these people and asking about these horrendous things that had happened to them. What right did I have to do that? Then I met these guys and they said ‘Thank you so much for coming to find us, for hearing our story because no one else has.’ Many people look at photography as an intrusion but it is a very important way of giving people a voice.
YK: You are working towards a publication. What is your intention with the book format?
LQ: I always envisaged this work as a book. As I wanted to tell Justin’s story maybe that was the only way to do it, with a narrative: you meet the characters, you learn about their problems, then you understand that Justin is not defined by his illness. He has a hobby and a girlfriend and as you weave your way through the book, you come to other issues. You realise that social cuts are hurting Justin.
YK: Is an important aspect of the work for you to draw attention to the knock-on effects of social cuts?
LQ: It is really complicated what is going on. It’s because of the social cuts that Justin gets arrested. He was arrested in 2015 three times and in 2016 as well. There is not one serious crime. There is not actual harm being done to anybody.
YK: Are you trying to show that Justin is treated differently because of his illness?
LQ: It is because Justin has mental illness that he gets picked up. Social services used to fill that space. When Justin and Jackie were having troubles they would have called their health team but they are just not available in that way anymore. The police are the first resource now for the mentally ill.
YK: Does this work differ from other documentary photography because you are so deep inside the story?
LQ: My work previously has been shot from the outside looking in: with Before They Were Fallen trying to share those stories about soldiers killed in Afghanistan and their families, which was a privilege and a huge responsibility. But this is probably my best work because I am right next to the story. Ultimately, any photographer who picks up the camera is looking from the outside inwards. I’m not Cindy Sherman or someone like that where the idea is of photographing only yourself. There is still a small difference, Justin is my brother but I’m not Justin.
I can only photograph Justin by permission. I am very close to the story and I am part of the story because I was there when my parents got divorced but I was much younger. That has affected all of us in our family on some levels, so I am absolutely inside the story and happy to be there, but still I can’t experience Justin’s schizophrenia.
YK: How do you balance emotional attachment with making professional decisions?
LQ: I try to be as objective as I possibly can. It is about separating your emotions from the work. In the book, there is an act of self-harm that was very difficult for me to photograph. It was at a time when he was in a really low place so I consciously made quite professional decisions. When you are holding the camera and doing a story, there is an element of detachment. It is often when I get back and I look at the photographs that I’m upset. There is an element of trust. I would like to say that Justin trusts me to do the best by him. It is my responsibility to make sure that the work is true and honest and allows that really important story to be told but in a way which is empathetic.
YK: Do you find a conflict between wanting to protect Justin because he is your brother but at the same time you want to raise awareness by showing his illness?
LQ: There is a risk there. He might come into contact with people who have seen the book but I think that for most of the people who see the book it will only increase their empathy for Justin. It’s my responsibility to work really hard to mitigate that risk and make sure Justin does have a positive experience. Though to be seen and not to be ignored for once in your life is actually a really lovely thing that I can do for Justin and for Jackie. I also believe there is a responsibility for me, with my experience, to show what it is really like for schizophrenics in a meaningful way and I shouldn’t neglect that either.
YK: Your attachment to Justin and your affection for him is clear but your admiration and respect come across strongly also.
LQ: I do have an enormous amount of respect for him. I genuinely believe that he has navigated his illness through his hobby of birdwatching. He has used that as a form of medication. I think it has saved him from a really difficult illness which many people don’t come back from. Justin does get low but even at his lowest he still just has enough energy to go birdwatching. I think we can learn from that, and I love the idea that people who think ‘these crazy people are a drain on society’, might actually learn something from him that they can use in their own life.
YK: Going back to the format of the book, why do you use transcripts, medical notes and police records?
LQ: It is hard to photograph a lifetime of schizophrenia in five years, but what you can do is use the medical notes. I said to Justin ‘Are you ok with me using those notes?’ And he said, ‘I don’t really mind actually’.
The doctors will talk to Justin, observe Justin and write notes. The police do the same thing. What’s in Justin’s pockets for example, he has always got binoculars on him, sometimes he will have six lighters, one day he had a little pot of the plant food Baby Bio. The automatic ‘Big Brother’ surveillance revealed a lot about Justin’s character in a really sweet and unexpected way.
YK: Could you tell me more about the title of the project, Big Brother?
LQ: He is my big brother and that in itself has associations: your big brother is supposed to look after you, not the other way around. Then there is an element of this care and control. That layer of surviellance might not be immediately obvious but it is increasingly important because the more you become aware of Justin’s life and his relationship to the authorities, the more you are aware of this difficulty that the police have in looking after the mentally ill.
YK: Did Justin collaborate with you, did he give ideas of what he wanted to do, or make suggestions?
LQ: No, he is really not that involved on that side. What I would do sometimes is say, ‘Justin, will you write me a poem please?’ And he will do that and that’s his willing and knowing contribution. He did make a suggestion last week, he wants to write an acknowledgement which would be lovely.
YK: Was your relationship with Justin affected by you documenting his life?
LQ: This whole process has made me closer to Justin. I feel more responsible for him because I am asking him to do something and then in return I need to be giving sometrhing back to him. So I am going to take Justin and Jackie on a holiday soon and I wouldn’t have done that before.
YK: Are you putting Justin in a role of responsibility that he seldom has the opportunity to fill?
LQ: I often say to Justin that he is an ambassador, especially when he was low and he cut himself. I told him, ‘You’ve got a really important story, let people know what it is really like’. I do often push Justin into that way of thinking, that gives him responsibility.
YK: How does Justin feel about the project?
LQ: I think he likes it but he doesn’t come out and say. He doesn’t think like that. It is part of his life in a way that it is part of mine now. He has accepted it I think. Jackie as well, she is the same. Where you see Jackie’s spirit is that every day she puts her make up on. She was very pretty when she was younger. She has still got that identity as an attractive woman.
YK: Do you feel a different responsibility towards Jackie?
LQ: Yeah, a different responsibility with Jackie. She’s got enough knowledge to know what is going on but she is less interested than Justin in the book.
YK: Does Jackie respond differently to you than Justin does?
LQ: Definitely, Jackie is less relaxed for sure. She will get more relaxed the longer I am in the space. I quite like the fact that she is posing because it talks about that other side of her; she is more aware of the camera.
YK: How is Justin doing now?
LQ: He is in a really good place. The summer is always his best time. People will look at Justin when he is depressed and go, ‘Well, at least he is behaving himself’ and I see a horrible debilitating depression. I wanted to reveal his humanity and his individuality, his quirkiness and his craziness as well, but in a lovely way. He has his own ethical code and in many ways it is a stronger ethical code than the systems we employ to regulate society.
Other articles mentioning Louis Quail:
Other articles on photography from the 'Documentary' category ▸