My mind was whirling yesterday after making a picture of a patient at the Missouri Psychiatric Center. Who was he? What was his story? How long had he been there? Could he leave? Was he forced to wear his distinctive orange outfit?
Within an hour or two, I had posted the image on my Instagram feed, albeit without any caption information.
The context of this image was certainly important. Without a caption, the man could be anyone standing there for any purpose. A caption not only brings clarity, but also introduces a wealth of associations and judgments.
I wanted to blog about these thoughts last night and discuss the ethics of posting the image. Legally, I was covered, but ethically, it was more complicated. A couple having sex in front of their open window, for example, had chosen to expose themselves and deserved any resulting consequences their exhibitionism incurred. This man’s situation was potentially different, though. Was he committed through fault of his own?
I didn’t know the answer last night, but today, I’ve determined that it doesn’t matter.
I’ve photographed people in wheelchairs, with canes, crutches, and other physical ailments and posted their images without a second thought. Why, then, is mental illness different? Because, as my father suggested while speaking with me earlier today from his kitchen in Colorado, we place a greater social stigma on mental illness than on physical disability.
I knew then that I should publish the photo. By refraining, I was contributing to a negative and harmful stigma that mental illness was somehow less deserving of dignity, expression, or depiction than any other disability.
When we recognize differences and treat other people differently because of them, we marginalize, oppress, and build stereotypes that our future generations inherit. Regardless of his circumstances or why he stared crestfallen at a bustling street from behind a pane of thick glass, he is a human being and deserves equal treatment.