The Schizophrenic Image: Madness and Modernity

Chris Steele-Perkins, Abdul Sattar Edhi, Edhi Foundation Mental Hospital, Pakistan, 1997

Chris Steele-Perkins, Abdul Sattar Edhi, Edhi Foundation Mental Hospital, Pakistan, 1997

In Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia it is postulated that “[t]here is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together”.[1] A process of production is now the way in which meaning is formed; both within the modern experience and photography. Everything is linked, and all processes of production are interconnected. It is, therefore, important to note agency in photography and what produces the image. Artistic genius; the photographer’s finger; the camera; and the subject, are all agents of the image. Each could be said to produce the image, but all are produced within it. Photography is intrinsically linked with the production of modernity, and is fundamental to describing the modern experience.

The form of this essay, its rhetoric, deliberately mirrors the fragmented world within the image, and the photograph’s inability to produce the whole. It will serve as a form of photographic critique and as a way of understanding the abruptness, and accumulation, present in the modern experience. I will argue how madness can be witnessed in photography and modernity. The madness of modernity is discovered (in the silences and speech) in-between the image, our experience, and how we understand this experience.

Images are difficult to interpret: they are overstuffed with description, phrases and words yet confined to the lens’ view. Thoughts that arise from a single image can be raised by any image. The image produces meaning by veiling and unveiling visual signifiers (or producers) within the lens’ confines. Confinement, however, doesn’t prevent the image from flowing beyond the lens. The above image displays the idea of confinement and the fragmented self. This will become apparent as I analyse the bodies and their significance to this photograph and photography as a whole.

Erroneously, a schizophrenic is believed to have a multiple personality disorder; however, it might more accurately be described as a breakdown in thought processes. Chris Steele-Perkins’ depiction of the Edhi Foundation Mental Hospital is one which suggests this breakdown in mental process, but also the erroneous multiple personality of a schizophrenic. The image contains an intimacy, and yet a very obvious separation; the portrait-like squares emerge from a landscape of darkness giving us a voyeuristic view through the gallery wall, and the asylum wall, into  the taboo world of the mental institution.

There is no focal point in this photograph, the eight cells draw the eye equally and focus on body parts rather than the body or the person. The bodies in the photo contain no identity, and their dissection by the blackness suggests a split self:[2] An idea which continues this schizophrenic analogy. One cell stands out more than the others; the top right frame is the only one with a face. This body is given an identity by the photographer via the depiction of his face, but we do not know who he is.[i] He seems to be captured by the image but it is uncertain whether it’s by the institution or the camera. What is unusual about the image is the clarity of every cell. The bodies are all in focus with very crisp defined outlines, as is the blackness surrounding the frames. This adds to the intimacy, we see no manifestations of the photographic process, such as blurring or issues of contrast: instead the camera seems far removed from this scene.

Howells states that “[a] photograph, it can be argued supplies us with [different]… kinds of visual evidence. At its most basic level, it tells us something about its subject matter… At the second level, the photograph serves not simply as a window but also a mirror in which we see the reflection of the individual… who made it”.[3] This image captures the men in this institution, and (re)produces them within the discourse of the photograph and photography. It also captures the man who built the institution framing him within the discourse of the asylum. Unintentionally it mirrors Perkins, the society and the organisation which he comes from.

Perkins belongs to Magnum, a photographic institution which aimed “to chronicle their own time… as fair-minded witnesses free of chauvinistic prejudices.… The photographer’s nationality and national journalistic affiliation were, in principle, irrelevant”.[4]In principle Magnum’s mission is clearly stated, but is subverted by the discourse present in their images. For instance, in this image the institutionalised, insane, Pakistani’s are inside the wall. Whereas Perkins is on the outside, with the power to observe. A boundary exists between them and us, them being the insane, but also the foreign, and us being the photographer – the rational observer and the westerner.[5]

The use of the word cells above is not accidental; the bodies are incarcerated by both society and the camera. This image depicts madness with bodies captured in romantic and dejected poses. The position of the people in this image, beyond the veil of the wall and in laborious positions, suggests their difference from us, the observer. Moreover, the image’s composition connotes a madness and insanity; more so than other images engaging with portraiture, possibly arising from its dialectic relationship with landscape photography.

Generally landscapes capture a vista as a memento, whereas portraits capture a person’s likeness – this image succeeds in doing both. A photographer, more importantly a journalistic photographer, only sets out to capture a moment as a token, a means of showing the world what is happening and where he has been to capture it.[6]

The portrait, however, tries to do something much more.

Nadar talks of the intimate resemblance in portrait photography. He believes that the portrait should try and capture “the resemblance that is most familiar and most favourable, the intimate resemblance. It’s the psychological side of photography”.[7] This psychological side of photography, for Nadar, might give us a glimpse of the real person – the portrait in this image should, therefore, give us an intimate view of the psychology of the sitter; a representation of their malady.

However, madness is difficult to define; especially when we are defining it within the context of a photographic image. Derrida and Chelser give us two definitions of insanity which can endure the leap from the written word to the visual medium. Chesler states “[m]adness – as a label or reality – … is perceived as (and often further shaped into) a shameful and menacing disease, from whose spiteful and exhausting eloquence society must be protected”.[8] Using semiotics an image can be considered a piece of ‘exhausting eloquence’; the amount of producers in a single image disconcerts.[ii] Some speak to us and are understood more than others: but everything is uttered, like the “ramblings” stereotypical of madness. This is a symptom present in all photographs and is inevitable when imagery is converted to language.

Symptom is a loaded phrase and part of a repressive discourse. Symptoms are something which can be observed read and owned – A very Foucauldian idea. When I viewed this image the voyeuristic gaze that the camera held over the subjects shocked me. The camera acts as our own personal gaze into the world of madness. We read our own preconceived discourses about madness into the image, and we take away a sense of empowerment and superiority. Howells’ mirroring, stated above, unveils the madness that exists in modernity and oneself; in particular modern forms of producing art, exemplified by photography. By viewing and capturing madness we see it within ourselves and begin to analyse it.

Derrida argues that “[m]adness is what in essence cannot be said”[9]. This is not a lack of speech; instead it is the person’s lack of a reliable discourse, the inability to be heard even by ourselves.  The “ramblings” of madmen and the photograph’s constant deferral of meaning are one of the same for understanding this idea.[10] We cannot distinguish all of what is being produced by the image due to the constant additions and accumulation of the producer and produced. Some are cut short – fragmented – others cannot be understood, but all these omissions and admissions create meaning.

Ideology and discourse creates another silence. The wall, in the image, obscures the asylum adding a veil to the photograph. It acts as a manifestation of society’s repulsion of madness as a topic, yet the image’s existence connotes its obsession with labelling and othering it. As Tagg suggests, “Photography is itself an apparatus of ideological control”, and this control creates silence and speech in the image. It speaks using a western and rational discourse and polarises the madness it represents, silencing the subjects.[11]

Henri Michaux theorises a schizophrenic table, which poses some striking resemblances to photography as a whole. “Once, noted it continued to occupy one’s mind… it was neither simple nor really complex… or constructed according to a complicated plan.… As it stood, it was a table of additions… ‘overstuffed’… the table having become more and more an accumulation, less and less a table”.[12] This idea of accumulation and overstuffing corresponds with the idea of madness argued above: It is an incoherence of language formed from the endless deferral of meaning, and the constant stream of new producers.

Language controls how we understand the world; and discourse within language, the base of ideological power, controls everything and everyone. Materialistically populations are all producers and the produced within the modern machine. All part of the schizophrenic system as we strive forwards in an endlessly active (and producing) swarm.[13] The incomprehensibility of the machine’s parts (the producers/produced), and its complications create a system of silences. These producers create madness the same way the photographic image does. Artistic genius; the photographer’s finger; the camera; the subject – photography – are all enclosed by this modern system of production. The modern experience is produced through imagery, and photography, and their conversion to language.

The means to understanding modernity lies within the schizophrenic thought process, and our desire for, and acceptance of the modern and schizophrenic experience.

[1] Giles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), p. 2

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang, New York; 1981): Barthes’ work continually uses the motif of the knife and pain when discussing the affective element of photography. The term dissection alludes to this motif, engaging with this history of critical response.

[i] After research this person is not Abdul Sattar Edhi. Also, being placed in a mental institution doesn’t lend to having one’s identity widely known making any search incomprehensible.

[3] Richard Howells, ‘Self Portrait: The Sense of Self in British Documentary Photography’, National Identities, 4.2 (2002), p. 101

[4] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003), pp. 34-35

[5] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979): Here, by othering the Occident and Orient I invoke Said’s discussion of East/West polarity.

[6] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1994), pp. 38-74: The chapter ‘House and Universe’ discusses the idea of the world being devoid of people: Schizophrenic theory in this essay has a similar idea, removing people from the world in favour of producers and the produced.

[7] Malcolm Daniel, Nadar, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed 17/01/2014

[8] Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 95

[ii] Signifiers or signs are one component of this producing machine and I will, therefore, refer to them as producers hereon.

[9] Jacques Derrida, ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, in J. Derrida (ed.), Writing and difference, Trans. A. Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), p. 43

[10] Jacques Derrida, ‘Differance’, in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2004), p. 127

[11] John Tagg, ‘The Currency of Photography (1978)’, in Manuel Alvarado (ed.), Representation and Photography (London: Palgrave, 2001), p. 99

[12] Deleuze, Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp. 6-7

[13] Deleuze, Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. xvii


Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1994)

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang, New York; 1981)

Chesler, Phyllis Women and Madness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

Daniel, Malcolm, Nadar, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed 17/01/2014

Deleuze, Giles, Guattari, Félix, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011)

Derrida, Jacques ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, in J. Derrida (ed.), Writing and difference, Trans. A. Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), pp. 31-63

Derrida, Jacques, ‘Differance’, in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. By Anthony Easthope, Kate McGowan, 2nd Edition (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2004), pp. 120-142

Howells, Richard, ‘Self Portrait: The Sense of Self in British Documentary Photography’, National Identities, 4.2 (2002), pp. 101-118

Said, Edward W., Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979)

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003)

Steele-Perkins, Chris, ‘Edhi Foundation Mental Hospital, Pakistan, 1997’, Abdul Sattar Edhi, in Magnum Photos, inc. (ed.), Magnum° (London: Phaidon, 2010)

Tagg, John ‘The Currency of Photography (1978)’, in Manuel Alvarado (ed.), Representation and Photography (London: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 87-118

Word Count: 1,644


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