I have been spending a lot of time editing the suitcases in the past few weeks, and have set a goal to finish all of that work by early April. Over the 5+ years of shooting, the amount of images generated is quite massive. So check out the willardsuitcases.com site if you haven’t been there lately. All of the recent folks are at the bottom of “The Cases” page. I am uploading on a regular basis. Most of the cases that I have been working on are not very full, but the labels are so evocative. Bertha S was clearly at the Newark State School (The New York State Custodial Asylum for Feeble-Minded Women) before she came to Willard.
Florence G. arrived at Willard in 1936 and lived in Eliott Hall. Her two cases contained little more than some coat hangars, a key, and a label.
On Ida’s label, the “returned from family” line is interesting and a bit sad. One always wonders what kind of connection the patients at Willard had with their families.
Ellen H. arrived in March of 1967. This type of tie down ribbon was common in many of the suitcases. The green is such a beautiful color.
When I ran the second Kickstarter appeal, the top reward was a limited edition book that was for backers at the $500.00 level. I had 40 printed and still have a few left that are numbered and signed. If you would like to help the project in a big way, I would be most grateful for the support.
Many of you have asked about a book, and I realize that $500.00 is beyone the budget of a lot of the followers of this project. So I have had another run of the reward book printed. It is a slim volume that contains 32 suitcase photos and a picture of the attic where the cases were stored, along with a bit of text. I am selling these for $60.00 + $10.00 shipping and they are really beautifully designed and printed. If you are interested, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You will then get an invoice through Square, which processes my transactions, and once payment is made, I will ship it right out. Paypal also works for me, and if you email me, I’ll give you the details. If you want one for yourself and one as a gift, I’ll send along two for $100.00 (plus the $10.00 shipping).
Thanks again for following and for all the support.
The visit to WUNC went really well. Frank Stasio was a great interviewer and it was fun to chat with him and Rose Hoban, whose interest in the suitcases brought me to Raleigh for the Lives on the Hill event. Here is a link to the broadcast.
I am staying with my friends Eric and Gail Vaughn and yesterday they drove me over the Dix grounds so I could get my bearings. I saw this marker for the cemetery and we stopped to walk around.
I was actually shocked to see that the grave markers used names instead of numbers as New York State does. And it made me both sad and angry that New York still refuses to allow former patients to be identified.
It would seem such an easy thing to change, but New York State OMH has no interest in doing so.
Please go to Lin Stuhler’s site and read her goodbye post. She has said it much better than I ever could.
Tonight is the reception at The Mahler Fine Art gallery in Raleigh and tomorrow is the big public event. If you are in the area please come by. Thanks for following.
I had an amazing time in Galveston at NamiFest. What a lovely group of people and I felt so very welcomed by everyone. My presentation went really well and I got fantastic feedback about the suitcase photographs. NAMI is a fantastic grass roots organization, and if you or friends and family are dealing with mental health issues, they are a valuable resource.
Tomorrow I am off to Raleigh for the “Lives on the Hill” event which centers on the Dix Hospital complex. On Thursday just after 12.15 PM, I will be on “The State of Things” program with Frank Stasio. For those of you near a computer at that time, it can be streamed here. It will also be rebroadcast in the evening at 8.00 PM. The big event is on Sunday. Here are the details. If you follow the project, please stop by and say hello. I love meeting folks and talking about the suitcases. In addition to the Sunday event, photos are on display at The Mahler Fine Art, and at the Busy Bee Cafe. It should be an interesting weekend.
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.