I watched a broadcasting about psychiatry in Belgium on Canvas television. The history and treatments in the past were the focus, a probing documentary.
That documentary reminded me of a visit to a former psychiatric hospital in Belgium that was converted into a museum and where a photography exhibition was. The museum, or the psychiatric hospital, belonged to a large psychiatric complex, part of which was still in use as a clinic. Inhabitants were able to use the beautiful garden in the courtyard of the complex.
I shot this portrait in the recreation room of the clinic where inhabitants and their guests could have a cup of coffee. I ended there when I saw a few people with coffee going into the courtyard, and the scent of coffee is something I always follow. In the recreation room I introduced myself and then sat down at one of the tables among other visitors and joined their conversation, small talk about this and that. I must have been there more for than one hour, when a lady asked me:
“Are you here for one of the residents?”
“No”, I answered, “I´m only here for the great coffee”
“But you are a Dutchman?”
“That´s right, I came to see the exhibition in the museum, Belgium photographers. I´m sort of lost and ended here where I find it very pleasant with you all at the table”.
“Are you a photographer?”
“Well … uh … I take pictures, but not as good as the Belgium photographers in the museum.”
“Of course not.”
She said she would be very pleased if I could take a photo of her nephew. “I have none of him, he is here for years now, I come here every Sunday, he sits over there.”
“We are our own boss”
I looked at the corner of the table, among some other residents of the clinic a man sat hunched.
“I have my camera with me and I like to take a photo of him for you, when I am allowed to do that here.”
“Anything is allowed sir, in here we are our own boss.”
I hesitated for a moment, can I do this? Isn´t this like using these people for my own photo-desire? I asked them, they were amazed by my question and in very good understandable Flemish, I was told that she would be very happy with a photo of her nephew.
“OK, I will make that photo and send it to you” (a granddaughter had a computer).
“You are allowed to use the photos lad, if you want to”
I did not expect the chain-reaction that came, most of the visitors in the recreation room wanted a portrait of their loved-ones, as it was for free …and coming from a Dutchman! I made agreements with everybody, gave them my business card and went home with an impressive series of portraits. How lucky can you be when something like this comes your way?
“You are allowed to use the photos lad,if you want to. He is a beautiful man, that nephew of mine, always been.“ The photos were send by email and I received many thank-you´s. The granddaughter took the nephew´s photo immediately to the HEMA to print and grandmother was very happy with it.
“Do I know you?”
More than a year later, I visited the same museum with my girlfriend Lieve. Curious as I am I also walked into the recreation room. Some people I recognized, some I would not have taken photos of now, at least not to use them in anyway. The joy at the table that afternoon was gone. Moments to cherish. I may never experience that again. Two residents looked up towards me, I saw one in doubt as if he wasn’t sure if he knew me or not. The other one pointed to me and acted as if he was taking a photo with his camera. He smiled at me. I went back into the museum. The photography exhibition and beautiful photos. A memory that will stay with me for ever.
There is always something, where ever I am. It’s just there
Watching the documentary on television made me remember this. I know now that is was okay. I made several people very happy with a photo of their loved-ones. That´s how it goes… 35 Years of photography in the social-documentary sphere, I experienced many things on my way and I wasn´t even looking for them. It is simply the moment, completely unexpected. There is always something, where ever I am. Striking, the way things happen in one’s life, that’s perhaps another thing to cherish.