BY: JESSICA BEUKER
All photos by Jon Crispin
In 1869, the Willard Asylum opened its doors, designed specifically for people suffering from chronic mental illness. Located on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake in Central New York, it was, at one point, the largest residential psychiatric centre in the country with over 80 buildings spread across 1,400 acres.
The asylum’s first patient was Mary Rote, and according to Asylum Projects, she had prior been chained for 10 years without a bed or clothing at the Columbia County Almshouse. Shortly after, three more patients arrived. The patients who came to Willard were considered difficult and previously had been dealt with through methods of flogging, dousing and hanging by the thumbs. Once they arrived at Willard however, they were bathed, dressed, fed and resting quietly. Willard grew rapidly within the first few years and by 1877 housed more than 1,500 patients.
In 1995, the Willard Psychiatric Center closed. Upon closing the facility, a collection of suitcases was discovered. The suitcases belonged to the patients who once resided within the asylum’s walls – full of the personal belongings that they cherished most to bring with them.
Photographer Jon Crispin, who spent a lot of time throughout the 1980s documenting abandoned buildings at Willard, found out about the suitcases soon after the New York State Museum accepted them into a permanent collection. He expressed interest in photographing the suitcases and the contents they held inside. The photographs serve as a sort of time capsule to the individuals who spent many years at Willard, and it gives us an intimate look into part of their lives.
PZ: What was the process of shooting and building the collection like?
JC: On the first day of my access to the collection, I had no idea what the outcome of the project would be. I figured out on that day that I was not only interested in the suitcases, but also how the New York State Museum conserved and catalogued the collection. I initially thought I would photograph only the most interesting cases, but eventually came to the realization that even the empty ones were important.
Crispin states on his blog: “I am so interested in these cases. I like the idea of documenting the care and energy that the Museum has put into them. And I am totally wigged out by being able to photograph a representation of the lives of people who struggled so much to make it in a very stressful and confusing world… I have been working on some ideas with Dr. Karen Miller, a writer and psychiatrist. She has also been spending time with the cases, and doing research on the lives of people who were at Willard. We’ll see what happens.”
JC: The difficult part of the shooting for me was unwrapping each individual item before placing it on my background in an arrangement. After shooting I had to replace every item back in its original archival envelope, making sure all of the catalogue numbers matched. My assistant Peggy Ross was instrumental in helping me with this.
PZ: Are the cases owned by the city? Have families ever tried to claim them?
JC: The cases are in the permanent collection of the New York State Museum in Albany, NY. Attempts were made to contact family members at the time of the 2004 exhibit. I am regularly contacted by descendants in an attempt to find out if their relatives have suitcases in the collection.
PZ: On your site there is a name under each suitcase, are those real names? If not, how did you choose each name?
JC: The first name is the real name. But I am limited by very strict New York State laws governing patient confidentiality. It is a huge problem for me as I am only allowed by law to use first names and the first initial of the surname. If I could use the full name it would be easier for families to discover if a relative’s suitcase is in the collection.
Speaking about a particular case, Crispin writes on his blog: “This particular case belonged to Freda B…(I would really like to use her whole name here, but there is a massive debate going on as to whether people who have been at Willard and other psych centers need to be protected by privacy laws. I come down strongly on the side that it is dehumanizing and stigmatizing to pretend that she doesn’t have a surname.”
PZ: Were you able to find out the identity of each suitcase? How much did you learn about each patient?
JC: Yes, I know the identity of each owner. I do not have access to their medical records, although I have heard quite a bit about some of the patients through my connection with former Willard employees. This leads to an essential element of my work. I realized early on that I did not want to tie the suitcases directly to a diagnosis of the owners. I prefer to let the photographs help the viewer get some idea of the lives of the owners before they were diagnosed with a mental illness and institutionalized.
PZ: Was there any particular suitcase/story that you felt really connected to or that left an impact on you?
JC: There are over 400 cases in the collection, and it is impossible for me to think of specific cases on any kind of consistent basis. I will say that I was often overwhelmed by being able to hold these objects in my hands and make photographs of them.
PZ: How much were you able to tell about a person from their belongings?
JC: Quite a lot. The items that folks brought with them to Willard say much about what they valued in their lives. Your question is pretty much the core of the project. What can you tell about a person who chose to bring certain objects with them when facing institutionalization for an uncertain period of time?
PZ: Was there a connecting theme or item among all the suitcases?
JC: There were some items that we saw repeatedly. For example there were several small, carved wooden dogs in the cases.
I prefer to let the viewer of the project determine if there is a connecting theme.
PZ: What were some of the most unusual things you discovered in a case?
JC: Again, it is difficult for me to reflect on individual cases or items. I tend to look at the entire collection as a whole. The suitcases always have, and continue to blow me away. Often I feel less like a photographer, and more like a vehicle for transmitting the story of the owners of the suitcases. I work very instinctively and quickly, and am often surprised by what I see in the images while editing them.
PZ: What is your overall goal or purpose with the suitcase project?
JC: As with all of my work, I just want to get a reaction to my photographs. I don’t have an agenda; I hope viewers are moved by the images.
PZ: Anything else you want the audience to know about the project?
JC: I spent five years shooting the suitcases, and am only about 1/3 of the way through editing all of the photos. I am in the early stages of talking to publishers, and museums, and hope the project will continue to be seen by a lot of people.
Crispin posts regularly on joncrispinposts.com. You can also visit willardsuitcases.com to look at the collection. Archival prints can be purchased through the site, and the proceeds go toward the completion of the project.