Louis Quail

Louis Quail is a UK based documentary photographer. Louis has worked extensively for some of the UK’s best known magazines and has been published and worked internationally over a period of many years. Louis increasingly devotes his time to personal, long-term projects. In this interview Louis shares his project Big Brother, an intimate photographic portrayal of his brother Justin’s struggle with schizophrenia. You can purchase a copy of the book, published by Dewi Lewis, on Louis’ website.

What is your background in photography? How would you describe your career path and yourself as a photographer?

I was an editorial photographer for many years working for the Telegraph, Times, Marie Claire and so forth. Perhaps always a bit frustrated by the need to pay the bills I never really gave my self much room to explore work in any depth. This changed with my first big project desk job exploring globalisation through office life around the world. Big Brother is a continuation of a need to make projects with depth which are driven by an impulse to explore issues which I really care about and where there is the space to say something with originality.

Can you tell us how the project Big Brother came about and why you started to photograph Justin?

When I started this book it was shortly after mother died. Part of me would like to have photographed her, she also had schizophrenia, but I didn’t feel comfortable at that point in my career, I thought I might be exploiting my relationship on some level. When I started working on this book I was older and more confident in the idea that it is really important to give people like Justin a voice. I have come to believe worse than being intruded upon is to be ignored, Justin is at the bottom of the rung in society, this book gives him a voice.

At home in Mortlake, London.
Justin’s conditions means he is often feeling depressed. He oscillates between highs and lows; often the lows are attributed to high doses of drugs to control the behavior associated with the highs. Sometimes however he is just down or exhausted from lack of sleep. He hates taking the drugs complaining they create a “fog” that makes life like “wading through mud”.
Justin’s level of organization and his ability to focus seems to have deteriorated as he gets older; keeping his room clean is a major challenge despite regular visits from cleaners.
Justin, photographed at his girlfriend’s flat in East Sheen.
Justin’s continued visits to the now abandoned Mereway Day Centre are a testament to its hold on him. It was his go-to drop in centre for 23 years (and for our mother). Its closure around 2007 comes against a backdrop of government cuts within the mental health industry (including other favourites for Justin such as the Level Crossing and Centre 32 ) which if anything has been accelerating in recent years.

What pushed you to turn the project into a book?

The main reason to make this book is to challenge stigma, which is pervasive in our society in the UK and beyond. We expect stigma in mainstream society and nine out of ten people who suffer with mental illness says stigma makes their life worse. Simply not being treated decently, fairly or like an equal causes all sorts of negative outcomes for those who suffer from it. But perhaps more of a surprise is the way that stigma in some way is built in to the systems we use to manage our mentally ill. For example, risk assessments made by the mental health team by process are stigmatising, if we look for the worst case scenario from our mentally ill, we run the risk of demonising them.

This book challenges stigma by showing the life of an individual in all the light and shade; someone who suffers with their mental health but is not defined by it. We have moved mountains challenging stigma around physical disabilities, but mental health is still a remote area for many — misunderstood, ghettoised. We need the book to really get to grips with Justin’s life with real depth. We show some of Justin’s difficulties but also celebrate his success and contributions found in his relationship and his passions for art and bird watching. The message is mental health is part of us but it is not all of us.

How does Justin feel about the project? How on board is he with being photographed?

Justin’s thoughts on the project seem to change with his health and sense of well being. Sometimes he is excited to be part of it and supportive but at other times especially when he is down he lacks any sort of meaningful interest . One of the drivers for me is that I see there is an opportunity with this work to give Justin the chance to feel he is making an impact in the world, to give him a voice and to build self esteem. There have been many times when Justin has not been in the mood to be photographed and he has let me know this quite forcefully. However, he has never once asked me to to desist from making the book and over a period of years he has had the opportunity [to do that]. I think this stems from a deep human need to be seen.

At the same time this work is personal. There is no point making a body of work if its not going to be serious in intent and meaningful and to do that requires honesty and integrity. Part of this process I realised quite soon, involved me using Justin’s medical and police records so I could really get to grips with the parts of Justin’s life that could not be easily photographed. Although he understands this and accepts it (for him it is part of his daily life and does not concern him as it might others) and he understands why I am making this book, he is more apathetic about how it might change anything. In a way I’m fighting this apathy by encouraging Justin’s involvement. I am passionate about showing Justin’s life and fighting stigma. Deep down Justin trusts me and my instincts in the making of the book. With this trust comes a huge responsibility to make sure his has a positive experience.

The project is multi-layered using photographs of Justin, but also his art, medical and police records. How do you think this creates a wider and perhaps clearer picture of Justin’s story (and perhaps others experience of living with schizophrenia)?

Photography has limitations. Early on I knew I had to find other ways to tell Justin’s story. I can photograph Justin from the outside but the medical records allow me to get much closer to how he thinks. Written up medical and social service reports act like a series of interviews; revealing the nature of the illness and Justin’s inner thoughts. Equally, the police reports are working on a similar level. Witness statements from police officers detailing conversations made with Justin and his girlfriend Jackie are a brilliant aid to story telling the events during some of Justin’s most difficult moments.

What is surprising is how much of political planning at the top of society feeds down directly into Justin’s life: cuts to social care and police budgets and privatisation of housing care are all revealed in his interactions with the police and the associated records, so it’s important to have them. Most importantly though the police we see act like a third person in the relationship with his girlfriend (spoiler alert!). Their impulse is to separate them so the problems in their relationship go away. The question, will the relationship survive, this is something that drives the narrative.

Justin’s art and poetry in particular are hugely important, they give insight into his thoughts about his illness and the system that manages him. It’s been fantastic that I can use the book to give space to his compelling creative expression.

Justin’s paintings often feature boats and very often birds. Mixed media on paper.
Painting inspired by the song ‘I am the God of Hell fire’ (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown).
A painting inspired by the the song I am the God of hell Fire, from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Self portrait.

How does it feel when you’re making these photographs? What do you think about and how does photography help you connect to the emotion of the moment?

Normally When I’m spending time with Justin I’m fire fighting a problem, cleaning his flat calling social services visiting A and E, even; being practical. When I look at the pictures, later, on my own, is often when I get emotional about his condition. The photographs help me see the huge problems, Justin has had to deal with in his life; they are written into the shape of his face.

Doing this project has allowed me to think of and relate to Justin in a different way. I can understand and empathise with him from a different place and with deeper understanding. What this book has really taught me though is that Justin is hugely resilient, he is a survivor and the take away for the audience is that his passion for bird watching has been an integral part of his survival process, a form of self medication if you like.

@louisquail on Instagram