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Chasing Stigma in Indonesia

How does one capture stigma?

Patiently.

The photographer Andrea Star Reese dealt obliquely with issues of mental illness in her first project, “The Urban Cave,” on homelessness in Harlem. She is dealing with it head on in her current project, set in Indonesia, where Ms. Start Reese has worked on and off since 2003.

One day last year, she was struck by the appearance of a man she saw walking down the street in Yogyakarta. She asked her local fixer — that master of all trades who is every journalist’s best friend — what happened to the mentally ill in Indonesia. “I think it’s bad,” came the answer.

The two began by asking residents of different neighborhoods if they knew anyone with a mental illness. Their inquiries were generally rebuffed curtly: Nobody here is mentally ill.

“To be labeled as mentally ill is devastating to most people,” Ms. Star Reese said. Many people, she said, would rather be thought of as possessed, or under a spell, or incapacitated by some trauma or disaster — in other words, suffering from conditions that were imposed upon them.

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Andrea Star Reese
Emilia, 22, lives along a railroad in Jakarta.

Eventually, Ms. Star Reese was able to find Emilia, a mother from Surabaya who lives along a rail line in Jakarta. [Slides 7 to 9.] She met Wawan, a 49-year-old whose family keeps him inside a chicken coop. [Slides 4 and 5] She visited a Christian-run shelter and the general hospital in Kupang.

Her project has already exposed stark differences in mental health care across the archipelago. And she is just beginning. Ms. Star Reese says she plans to return to most — if not all — of the places she visited on her first trip, adding a few more institutions.

“Every area responds differently,” Ms. Star Reese said. “In Aceh and in Yogyakarta, where they have the experience of people coming in to do post-traumatic stress, and they’ve had floods of psychiatrists and psychologists, I think there will be very different feelings; very different responses.”

Although some of Ms. Star Reese’s photographs are difficult to look at, they aren’t about cruelty. They aren’t about a lack of care or compassion. In many ways, they are about labels.

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Zamzam stopped talking five years ago. His parents don’t know why.

 

For full slideshow: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/14/chasing-stigma-in-indonesia/?ref=world

June 14, 2011, 5:00 am - Chasing Stigma in Indonesia By KERRI MACDONALD

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