August 2008

by Ron Steinman

There are endless ways to think about photographs. We have to consider the intention of the photographer and the situation he or she is in. Then we must consider the photos that result, whether as a photojournalist covering news, one who takes pictures of weddings, or who uses his or her pictures to create a documentary. There are equally endless ways to think about writing, and the combination of words that make us reflect on what the writer wants to say, his or her style, and the effect the writer seeks to achieve as he or she puts one word after another to create a narrative.

This essay is about photos and words, words and photos, their juxtaposition and interdependency. Sometimes each is nothing without the other. I refer here specifically to the pictures and words in the book, "I Thought I Could Fly" by Charlee Brodsky, a professor of photography at Carnegie Mellon University, who is a fine-art and documentary photographer.

Charlee Brodsky

All photographs and text copyrighted by Charlee Brodsky and used with her permission.

Charlee Brodsky is a mother with a daughter who has bipolar disorder – thus the inspiration for her book. She says, "I wanted to create a body of work that would communicate the complexity and gravity of psychiatric disorders to others." Consider the illnesses touched on in the narratives. Listing them may seem harsh and cold. There is no denying that they are dark. The narrations, though, are moving, from the heart, often muted, and, surprisingly, never shrill. The person's words make the pain he or she feels that more intense.

Brodsky says, "All the stories are real, but some names are disguised for confidentiality. Many who contributed mentioned that the exercise of telling or writing their story felt good."

The mental illnesses Brodsky describes include depression, agoraphobia, manic-depression, uncontrollable rage, severe and extreme anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), postpartum depression, eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), PTSD, substance abuse of all types, schizophrenia and others, many linked to depression in all its forms and others that do not fit neatly into any category. In doing the book, Brodsky learned that "mental illness is pervasive. Some form of mental illness exists in most every family, school and workplace, among both rich and poor, and across all ethnicities and all ages."

View the photos and the short descriptive passages that accompany them. Think of the pain, anguish, unhappiness and the desire to connect when all connection seems beyond possibility.

"Jennifer accompanied her husband to London with a 4-month-old son in tow. Mothering – and London – were an altogether darker experience than she imagined." Jennifer's Bleak London Winter.

"After several years of separation from her daughter, Ann recaptures the fond memory of touch through her young grandson." Ann Loses Her Daughter to Heroin.

"Anne over 30 years ago. Her mother keeps one of her Renaissance instruments as a memento." A Mother Could Not Save Her Daughter.

To achieve her goal, Brodsky decided to show the difficulties people have living with problems that come because his or her mental health is awry. She does this through what she calls "Narratives" by the afflicted and those affected by the problems of those they love. To help these testimonies come alive, she created photographs to fit the stories people tell. Instead of reverting to classic clichés found in a movie such as "The Snake Pit," or, if drug or alcohol addiction, "The Man With the Golden Arm," she did not take the easy way out. She fashioned something different that works on a smaller, yet more effective scale. Her book is all the more powerful for the juxtaposition of her images and the heartfelt words of the narratives. The photos attached to each narrative exist to help define the story they accompany. They give an added dimension to the testimonies. We not only feel pain through the words, we see the pain as depicted in the image.

"Howard remembering growing up with a mother who had uncontrollable rages." Howard's Mother.

"She was shoplifting and leaving home in the middle of the night, and was dangerously aggressive toward her younger sister. On her return home after running away, Rebecca's daughter had many new piercings up and down the curves of her ears, and a belly button ring on the verge of infection." Rebecca's Daughter Comes of Age.

The photographs and the words in the book might seem to have little meaning alone. Take a moment with me as I consider the uses of photography and text, and the deliberate coming together of pictures and words. Deliberate is the important word here. In this case, neither the photo or the word exists alone but each complements the other for a purpose. Without context, the photos in this book appear to be either ordinary or, symbolic, which to me means they are out of the ordinary. If only symbols, when coupled with words, the photos become fact.

"With no warning, Mary's husband changed. He started drinking heavily and became hostile to his family, colleagues and friends. She worries that he will be another penniless, homeless person, who shuffles his feet." A Wife Loses Her Husband.

On first opening the book, casually examine "I Thought I Could Fly . . ." Then look more carefully at the photos that accompany each narrative. See how Charlee Brodsky uses them to help clarify the meaning of the written word. Watch how she combines each photo with each narrative. Some photos are poignant. Others are evocative. A few are real. A number are soulful. All are visual. Not every picture works perfectly with the text it accompanies. Not every photo is immediately apparent or recognizable in its position with the text. Most work, though, and those that do not seem to make sense, are accessible with extra effort.

As we examine the photos and text in this book and we see how they complement each other, it will help us gain a greater understanding of the degree of mental illness that afflicts many in our society. By doing this, "I Thought I Could Fly. . . Portraits of Anguish, Compulsion, and Despair" will have done us all a great service.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.