Louis Quail is described as a documentary photographer, but that tends to imply a photographer who looks at something from the outside with an analytical voice. Some of his earlier projects such as Desk Job in which he explores office life across the continents, showing the similarities of how the workers in a large office exist and how there is a common culture of the office worker versus the big bosses can be described in this fashion.
However, his latest project Big Brother is deeply personal. It tells the story of his brother’s struggle with schizophrenia and the ongoing difficulties this causes. It shows the difficult side of having a severe mental illness, and how negotiating the pitfalls of state, welfare and hospital treatment is fraught with anxiety both for the person and his relatives – but it also tells an ongoing love story about Justin and his long time girlfriend Jackie. The book is both fascinating and terrifying. I was constantly torn between laughing and weeping while reading and seeing Justins story. The book contains photographs taken over 7 years interspersed with text telling the story and drawings and pieces of writing by Justin. It includes a small booklet of paintings and poems by Justin which make it clear that however damaged Justin is by his schizophrenia he is also a very creative person. One of these poems begins:
Boxed in clever on a psychiatric ward
It’s no wonder I am bored.
The fatigue sets in
The eternal light won’t go off
Before its off. (Quail and Quail, 2018).
Quail says on his website ‘This book did not set out to be a political polemic; rather, my intention was to fight stigma and share Justin’s story so we can understand, empathize and celebrate Justin’s individuality. However, inevitably by studying the problems affecting my brother, the work speaks of and draws attention to the crisis in mental health care, raising important questions about how we look after our most vulnerable citizens’ (Quail, 2019).
The book is worth a long look – for the story, the images and the increased understanding of a person’s difficult world. For this story the long-term engagement was essential to avoid a superficial glance and to give the meaning to the story. It would have been simple to just show the ‘bad bits’ but Quail succeeds in showing both these and the joy that even a difficult life can encompass.
Quail, L. (2019). Big Brother – Introduction – Louis Quail Photography. [online] Louis Quail Photography. Available at: http://louisquail.com/big-brother-introduction/ [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].
Quail, L. and Quail, J. (2018). Big brother. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.