When I started photographing the suitcases, I really had no idea what I was doing, or where the project would go. Very early on, Craig Williams introduced me to poet and psychiatrist Dr. Karen Miller, and it has been amazing to “share” the suitcases with her over the five plus years that we have had access to the collection. Because of her, I was included in the Exploratorium Exhibit in San Francisco, and because of her, I gained so much insight into the lives of the patients at Willard. She has illuminated the human side of the folks who, in many cases, lived their entire lives at the institution.
I have always seen the suitcases and their contents as a reflection of who the patients were before, and during their time at Willard. Because Karen went through the lengthly and difficult process of gaining access to the medical records of the suitcase owners, she was able to explore the clinical and bureaucratic side of their lives. On many occasions, we worked side by side at the museum storage facility in Rotterdam and were able to talk about what inspired us about the collection.
In many ways, I didn’t want to learn too much about the reason these folks ended up at Willard, since it was important to me to feel a connection to them through their possessions.
So it was with some trepidation that Peg Ross and I made arrangements to spend the day in the New York State Archives photographing some of the massive case files of the suitcases owners. Karen spent quite a bit of time getting Peg and me access to this otherwise closed collection, and I want to thank her so much for her efforts. It was a remarkable day, and so nice to be working close to Karen again.
I am still not sure what I will do with these photos, but I do know that they’ll eventually be a part of whatever happens with my work on the suitcases.
As I was profusely thanking Karen for all that she has contributed to my work on the collection, she remarked on something that really resonated with me. I’ll paraphrase here, but she said something to the effect that the most important things she has done in her life have been in collaboration with others. I feel that so deeply. Without Craig Williams, I would never had been able to begin the project. Without Peggy Ross I would never have photographed the entire collection, and without Karen I wouldn’t have anywhere near the insight as to what life as a patient at Willard would have been like. It is so fulfilling to be part of a team of such creative, smart, and great people, and I am so grateful to each for their help and support.
This case belongs to Margaret D, and she clearly liked beautiful underthings. It is difficult to describe just how wonderful the fabric in these garments felt to the touch.
Margaret was a nurse before she came to Willard, and she also brought along a massive collection of highly starched nurses uniforms.
There had to have been at least 50 of these uniforms, and they were all folded nicely.
I first met Zoë Crossland shortly after she backed the first suitcases Kickstarter campaign. She is an anthropology professor at Columbia University and has invited me on two different occasions to speak to her department about the suitcases. Both visits were amazing, and I learned so much about the project from hearing what the faculty and staff had to say. Over a year ago we started a dialogue about the project with hopes of getting it published. Six months ago the Journal of Contemporary Archeology agreed to do so, and the online version was released late last week. Here is a link to see a pdf of the article. Scroll down to “Download Media” and click on the little icon next to “PDF”. I am so proud to be a part of this as I think Zoë did a fantastic job of connecting my photographs with her interests as an archeologist/anthropologist. There will be a print version available soon which can be ordered through the JCA.
Thanks for following. I have been getting quite a few new subscribers to this site, so as a reminder, you can check out The Willard Suitcases site here.
I just got word that the governor of New York State has signed Senate Bill S840A. Here is the summary of the bill; “(Senate Bill S840A ) relates to patients interred at state mental health hospital cemeteries; directs the release of the name, birthdate and date of death of certain patients 50 years after the date of death”. I am not totally clear about what “certain patients” means, and to whom this information may be released, but this is certainly good news. Here is a link to two earlier posts I did about the cemetery and the whole issue of names. Click on Coleen Spellecy’s and Lin Stuhler’s links to read about the two people who did the most to get this bill through the legislature. And thanks to Joe Robach for being persistent in getting the bill passed and signed into law.
The issue of not being allowed to name the owners of the suitcases has always bothered me. I have been expressly told by both the New York State Museum and the New York Office of Mental Health that due to state law, I am forbidden to use the surnames of the patients when I publish the photographs, even though some of those names have already been mentioned in local newspapers and in other sources. I feel that not using surnames continues to dehumanize the folks who were already stigmatized just by being patients at Willard. Due to this new law, it might be possible, in some instances, to begin using full names. All in all, this is a pretty exciting development.
Thanks for following and check out the suitcases site to see the latest.
Even though my summer has been scattered location-wise, I have been able to work regularly on editing the suitcases, and have been able to upload a good number of them to the Willard Suitcases site. Click on “The Cases” to see the latest. Theresa F was admitted to Willard on 3 April 1935.
It might be a good time to mention a couple of upcoming events where I will be talking about the project. In early October I will be traveling to Galveston to speak at NAMIFEST 2016. NAMI is a national organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families dealing with issues of mental illness. I’ll be speaking at the dinner event on Friday (the 7th). If you have been following the project and live in the Gulf Coast area, please think about attending.
The following week, I will be speaking at a very interesting event in Raleigh, NC. The “Lives on the Hill” project is being organized by the North Carolina Health News folks, and will be highlighting the shuttered Dix Hospital property in downtown Raleigh. I will be speaking at the Sunday (the 16th) event taking place at the Student Center on the NC State Campus. There will also be an exhibit of the photographs up for the entire month of October. I’ll update about the location once those details are finalized.
It is very exciting to be involved in both of these events, and I am really looking forward to being a part of them.
Several months ago I was contacted by the Brazilian publisher Compania Das Letras about the suitcases project being included in a book by Dorrit Harazim. They have been really great to deal with, but I wasn’t entirely clear about the nature of the project. When I got back from Nepal, a copy was waiting for me in my post office box. It seems to be a collection of essays about photographs (it is in Portuguese so I am not sure), and I was amazed to see the other photographers that were included. Several Magnum photographers are involved along with Gordon Parks and Vivian Maier and some other illustrious names. I am thrilled an honored to be a part of it. “O instante certo” translated roughly to “the right moment”. It is available through Amazon, so if you read Portuguese it might be nice to get a copy.
The article on the suitcases translates to “travel without return”. I would be happy if the book was translated into English at some point, but in the meantime, I’ll ask for a pdf and plug it into google translate.
The first few days I was in Nepal I had time in the mornings to edit some suitcase photographs. Upload speeds were really slow, so I didn’t get to add them to the site until today. You might want to check willardsuitcases.com to see some new ones. Scroll down to the bottom of the “Cases” page to see the latest additions.
Ida’s suitcase was mostly empty except for a comb, some wrapping paper, and a label. I really like this photograph.
I am in a phase of editing the suitcases where I have shifted from working on mostly full ones to ones that are largely empty save for labels. This is Elaine G’s leather grip. Nice hats, a lovely porcelain figurine and a Bible. Check out the suitcases site to see the latest uploads.
James arrived at Willard on 15 February 1961. I like how the staff identified his case as “clothlike”. I think it was actually real cloth.
And Carrie was admitted on 21 March 1930.
I am really facinated by the labels as they reveal quite a bit about the folks who owned the cases.
I was in DC earlier this week and had an interesting meeting with one of the curators at the National Portrait Gallery. This is the atrium that they share with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It is an amazing building with a fantastic collection.
Harry M’s case wasn’t technically a suitcase, but it contained some interesting things.
I’m not sure what the wooden object on the left is, but the Latimer White Petroleum Jelly label is quite nice. And the Prell shampoo bottle is classic. The label had fallen off, but it has the “Rinse, Lather, Repeat” admonition that got consumers to use twice as much as they probably needed.
I have been editing and uploading more of the suitcases, and you can see the latest here. Just click on “The Cases” at the top of the page. Thanks for following.
L. W.’s case was largely empty save for this purple piece of rope and a half-smoked cigar. It stikes me as a pretty good metaphor for a life interrupted. You can check out the other photographs on the suitcases site. Thanks for following, and I wish you all a lovely weekend.
I mentioned earlier this week that I was hoping to get Charles F’s photographs uploaded by the end of the week, and here is a sample. To see the rest of the collection, please go to the Willard Suitcases site.
From the little I know about Charles, he came to Willard somewhat later in his life. I have no way of knowing if the portrait in the above photograph is he, or someone near to him, but whenever I think about his life, this image comes to mind.
The tassels on his tallit are especially evocative to me.
I believe that this is the publisher of some of his books. I did a search for it but came up empty. Any help would be welcome.
His starched collars were still in quite good condition.
I have no way of knowing if he was in the military, but I would guess that this canteen was army surplus.
Here is a close up of his naturalization papers, which date to October of 1896.
Many of the suitcases in the collection contain scraps of paper with hand-written notes on them. I find that these can be especially interesting.
One of Charles’ cases had this selection tools (and a razor).
Please check out the rest of my photographs of Charles’ possessions on the suitcases site, and thanks for following.