“If you are on the lowest rung of society, if when you get on a bus people turn away from you, it’s nice to be noticed,” says Louis Quail. “It’s nice to be seen.”
We’re talking about his project Big Brother, which won the portfolio review prize at Format International Photography Festival and has been published as a book by Dewi Lewis. Shot over the last six years, it’s a portrait of Quail’s older brother Justin, who is now 58 and has suffered from schizophrenia for his whole adult life.
Quail doesn’t shy away from the obvious effects of his brother’s illness, showing his wrecked shoes and chaotic flat, and including police notes and medical records that speak of medication, sectioning and arrest.
But his project also shows another side to Justin – one less familiar, perhaps, in our conception of the mentally ill. It includes Justin’s excellent drawings and paintings, his poetry, and his love of bird watching; it also shows his girlfriend Jackie, who also has mental issues and is an alcoholic, but who he’s been with for 20 years.
“It’s kind of unexpected to see Justin maintaining this relationship and for such a long period of time,” writes Quail in the commentary that runs through the project. “I know I have plenty of very functioning friends who struggle forming relationships.”
“I wanted to show people what it’s like being mentally ill, all the lights and all the shades,” Quail tells me. “It’s something people probably haven’t seen before because, unless you have someone in your family who has schizophrenia, then it’s something you just don’t see. People are so obsessed with protecting the mentally ill they become like a war zone, with no access to the media, and therefore forgotten about.”
The images are intimate and often quite beautiful. A shot of Justin and Jackie on holiday shows them at the Giant’s Causeway, eating a packed lunch like any other couple. A shot of Justin wrapped in a blanket shows him as the Bohemian, raffish character he likes to assume, even as roguishly handsome.
Quail’s comments also provide a much-needed context, explaining that his brother’s medication makes him sleepy, or that Justin’s mental issues began when he was just a young teen, when his parents divorced, his mother – also a schizophrenic – moved in with a violent man, and he started to live in squats.
The book is dedicated to Justin “who I love very much”, and that love is evident throughout despite the potentially contentious look into his life. “I feel that I have a responsibility towards Justin, and to Jackie,” says Quail. “I’ve thought a lot about whether this amazing access is exploitative, and we’ve talked about it. But I want Justin to feel accepted, and to feel that he has value, and I think being more open about mental health issues is part of that.
“When you meet Justin the stigma is there, you know straight away that there is a problem,” he continues. “But for me, it’s a story about resilience as much as any thing else. Justin copes with his mental health really well – and if he can cope with all of that, then maybe there are things that we can learn from him. He might have some special skills we haven’t considered.”
And, as Quail makes clear, though some of the things his brother has to deal with are directly linked to his schizophrenia, others are not. His condition has helped ensure he’s has a partner who also has issues, for example, and who has taken to calling the police if they fight. Quail includes the police notes on some of these 999 calls, showing Justin’s infringements including not buying cigarettes for Jackie, or simply annoying her.
“It’s like, who doesn’t sometimes argue with their partner!” says Quail. “But most partners wouldn’t call the police.”
But as he points out, after being repeatedly called out the police eventually decide to take action – and Justin has now been arrested many times, for misdemeanours as trivial as damaging cigarettes. Once arrested, he’s held for at least 12 hours as he has to wait for a nominated adult to collect him.
And whether he’s had a run-in with the police, the social services, or his medical assessors, Quail points out that the way that Justin and his actions are framed always seem to pitch him as dangerous. Breaking a cup is read as “criminal damage”, for example, or shouting to his neighbours, when he’s locked himself out, as “putting his head through the letter box”.
“It must have been a huge letter box if this was the case; why not write ‘Justin shouted through the letter box’?” writes Quail. “This is typical of the report writing, which always seems to add incendiary flavour to the narrative, perhaps in order to justify the reporting in the first place.
“Actually it’s almost as if the mentally ill are expected to behave better [than the rest of society]; subject as they are to extra scrutiny and the assumption that the worse will always happen,” he adds.
For Quail, part of the problem is the swingeing cuts to social services, which has meant that closer relationships with better qualified carers have been lost. One section of the book shows Justin breaking into the now-abandoned Mereway Day Centre, for example, a drop-in facility that was his go-to for 2o years (and his mother’s before him), but which was closed by the government 2007.
In the absence of this specialist care, Quail points out, “the police step into the space”. “The police can’t walk away from it because if they get a 999 call they have to deal with it,” he explains. “So they become the care in the community.
“I was reading something saying it’s cheaper to keep someone in jail than to keep them in the mental health bed, so maybe it seems like good value. But what they’re not factoring in, is that when these mentally ill people come out of prison, they’re not being rehabilitated in any way.”
It’s complicated, as Quail says, and he’s planning to make his book a good 200 pages long to do it justice. “It’s got many layers,” he says. “But really it’s about value, it’s about resilience, it’s about stigma, it’s about care in the community, and how we care for our society. And it’s also about bird watching.”
louisquail.wordpress.com Big Brother by Louis Quail is published by Dewi Lewis, priced £35 https://www.dewilewis.com/products/big-brother Louis Quail will be signing copies of his book from 3pm-3.30pm at Photo London at stand P3 https://photolondon.org/event/louis-quail/