WorldLove portraits in an asylum: a remedy for madness

Love portraits in an asylum: a remedy for madness


They posed for the photographer smiling. Some put their heads together, others held hands or entwined themselves around the waist, put an arm on the shoulder of the other… However, in their faces, in their eyes, one can see the traces of the disease, the drug treatments, the electroshock … In the early 1990s, Chileans Paz Errázuriz, photographer, and Diamela Eltit, writer, worked together on a project: to narrate, with black and white images and poetic texts, what the couples of men and women who lived were like. and they loved each other at the Philippe Pinel psychiatric institution in the city of Putaendo, in central Chile, 200 kilometers from Santiago. The result was the book the infarction of the soul (the infarction of the soul), published in Chile in 1994 and in Brazil by the Moreira Salles Institute.

Errázuriz (Santiago, 77) tells by email that in that project he had “the freedom to which he aspired to take the photos”. The feeling that she recalls, on the one hand, “is the helplessness of the enclosure”, but on the other hand, she established a close relationship with those people she attended for a long time and who affectionately called her aunt peace, as they kissed and hugged her. The institution had been a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in the 1940s. When vaccination defeated this disease, it became, in 1968, a mental institution that received patients from different institutions, many of them indigent.

The principle of this work by four hands is in the images taken over almost two years by Errázuriz, a magnificent photographer who centers her trajectory on marginal characters in society. To this was added the novelist and essayist Diamela Eltit (Santiago, 72), winner of her country’s National Literature Prize in 2018: “Peace commented on her photos, invited me to write, and I proposed not to write about the photos, but rather that we made a double book, on the one hand its photographic account, and on the other hand my literary account”, he says, also by e-mail. “It is a book with parallel aesthetic discourses and, most importantly, based on a politics of poetics.”

The writer adds that, when she entered that place, she felt “that I had to be there, that in one way or another I was a part”, even though she already knew beforehand about the existence of the hospital and “the condition of the asylum seekers”. He summarizes this in a passage from his texts: “I am in the asylum for my love of the word”.

The sanatorium for the mentally ill in Putaendo (Chile). Errazuriz peace

In the book, the number of couples that have appeared in the sanatorium and how they express their affection and tenderness is noteworthy. Pedro with Margarida, María with Ismael, Rosário with Juan, Carmen with Fernando… “So many people in love is something that can be understood by the number of patients there were”, adds the photographer, who asks herself: “Is love a form of survival ?”. In any case, he considers that these relationships could be “a way of resisting marginality”. The men and women portrayed in his nearly 40 photos stare at the camera, “dismantle the stereotype of the happy couple, the couple with a well-formed family”. Eltit, in turn, wanted to make “a different book about love, to which several written records converged, texts that traveled across genres without any barriers”. The reader is thus faced with a volume that is a journey diary, an essay, poetry, epistolary literature… The writer takes us along the different and sometimes tortuous paths that those who have already been in love travel through: “Love and its complex processes of inversions and disappointments coined in the form of hatred, necessity, indifference, domination, oblivion”.

Regarding how he moved among the inmates, Errázuriz only notes that “they always wanted to be portrayed, united”, and that when they saw the photos “they considered them as a marriage certificate, so they told me, thanking me”. She once declared that her greatest satisfaction from that job came when she met a former director of the institution who told her that, “for doctors, these images have opened a door to looking at their patients with more dignity.” Love, so often associated with madness, here helped the mentally ill. Her partner described Errázuriz’s effort: “She gives them her photographic look as a gift, the certainty of her images. When he captures their poses, he confirms for them the relevance of his figures”.

Asked if those people had children, Eltit clarifies that “they were sterilized, a procedure they performed at the hospital when they arrived.” And when deciding on the title for the book, the writer —who has just won an award at the Guadalajara International Book Fair (Mexico)— reports that Errázuriz told her by letter (Eltit lived in Mexico) that one of the inmates had told her that he was there because “he had had a heart attack in his soul”. “I thought this was an accurate title, and Paz agreed. So the title came out of there.”

Another couple portrayed in the book 'El infarto del alma'.
Another couple portrayed in the book ‘El infarto del alma’. ERRAZURIZ PEACE

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