ALEX MAJOLI: LEROS
It began with a postcard. I received the photo postcard
of a man and a woman laying in the sun on a beach.
Only half of the woman is visible in the photo but
the eye goes directly to the two hands holding, and then
to the only face visible, that of a man. Contrary to the woman,
the man is fully dressed, and the expression on his face is not
of composed relaxation as one would expect from a beach scene.
And one becomes aware of the fact that there is something odd about
the photograph. It is more like a mother's hand holding a child's
than that of a man and woman. And it is a somewhat funny photograph
for the man's tense expression and his clothed figure "sun-tanning".
And it takes a while to realize that the man is in the grip of a deep
unease, of a long-standing discomfort with the world and the touch
of other people. But the world surrounds him and the hand of the woman
still holds his. And the picture attains that level of funny that is
engendered by the tenderness of human relations and of nascent
ease and comfort. Turning over the card, there is the announcement
of an exhibition, but little registers and the postcard goes up into
the bottom of a framed piece along with other photographs and cards.
A month later, on a train from Bologna to Venezia, in a new issue of
PHOTO Italian Edition (N. 32, December 1999), I read an article about
an exhibition by a young photographer who had spent some time on
the Greek island of Leros. Leros was a long-standing insane asylum,
previously a prison for political prisoners, and the name itself
(meaning dirty) reflected both the human history of the place and
the legacy it left. On the island, Majoli had shot a series
of photographs of the interns. Abandoned for some time to be managed
by untrained personnel, the patients fell deep into a dimension of
insanity than mental illness could have never initiated.
Neglect, abandon, solitude and abuse. These were the terms of their
existence as instituted by the state. In the article, Majoli reports
that his photos had actually lain stored away, that he was unaware
of their power until the photographer Ferdinando Scianna pointed out
their value to him. He created a port folio which became his
introduction card for entry into the Magnum Photo Agency.
The article carried a short history of the series and a few reproductions.
The gallery in which this exhibition had been inaugurated was IMAGINA,
in Venice. Only upon reading the name of the gallery, which had sent me
the postcard announcement, did I make the connection. And suddenly
the hand-holding scene acquired an immensity of sense that had been
subtracted from it by my disattention.
The book/catalogue (Venezia: West Zone, 1999) is entitled simply LEROS,
the name of the island which, in itself, expresses the view that society
at large seems to have had of those interned in the asylum island.
The book's impact is strengthened by the full page, full frame printed
photographs. The suffering faces, the degradation of isolation and
neglect, and the strength and enpowerment achieved from overcoming
these same elements is evident page after page. The overall effect
of the photography is rendered that much more impressive by the narrative
that accompanies the images. The island asylum was reclaimed through
the compassionate acts of a groups of psychiatric workers mostly from
Trieste and working along-side other European case workers. The texts
in the book, written by Laura Facchi, Maurizio Costantini and Franco
Rotella, reflect on the nature of mental illness, the place of those
afflicted in our society and the fears that drive our ignorance in facing
those who present us with a face we ourselves might wear.
Majoli's images bring us to gaze upon our other selves in a reportage
that is as gut-wrenching as from any war. This war is fought on
the home front, behind closed doors and inside our social structures,
in our cultures and along the thin line that separates peace of mind
and dis-ease within conventional structures.
November 1999, Bologna
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