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Friday, June 23, 2017

No Longer Invisible, Dealing With Disabilities Around The World

Andres Millan spent two years traveling around Bogotá, Colombia, and its environs, photographing people whose mental health issues or physical limitations kept them at home. Within cramped apartments where living rooms doubled as craft workshops and inside cinder block houses with dirt floors, he spent hours talking to these people about art and healing. To many in bustling urban centers, they were invisible, out of sight and out of luck.

article by David Gonzalez for The New York Times | June 21, 2017                                                       
wonderful photos by Andres Millan                                                                                                                          
But to Mr. Millan, they were kindred spirits he could not ignore. He knew the sacrifices made by caretakers who, in the absence of any real government programs, set aside their own careers to take on the full-time job of looking after children, brothers — even strangers — confronting serious conditions. He had once been among them.

“When I was 7, I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia,” Mr. Millan said. “I still remember a lot of the experiences I had, like when I got lost in a mall because I was following imaginary voices. I think that made me a lot more open, and that allowed people to tell me their stories. I could understand them better.”

Those stories — focused on overcoming hardship, not being mired in it — are at the heart of “Invisibles,” a project he undertook after a chance meeting with Antonio Castañeda, a sculptor and caretaker who had established a foundation to help people with disabilities through the arts. The project consists not just of images, which combine several frames to make panoramas that show caretakers along with their charges, but also interviews and a documentary.

photo: Antonio Castañeda, left, is a visual artist, musician and community worker who has been working for more than two decades to use the arts as a therapy tool for people with psychosocial disabilities. He invited Robinson, a man he befriended who lives with schizophrenia, to move in with him.Credit Andres Millan

His initial encounter with Mr. Castañeda was at an art program he was attending as part of his studies. He learned that the sculptor had taken in Robinson, a homeless man he had befriended on the streets. Robinson had been a police officer, he said, who was schizophrenic and still dealing with the trauma of a gunfight on the job.

“They threw him off the police force,” Mr. Millan said. “He was not from Bogotá and had no family to help him, so he lived on the streets. Antonio met him one day and found him to be intelligent and friendly. He decided to help him, at first with food, and then inviting him to move in.”

That encounter prompted him to join with Mr. Castañeda to seek out others for whom art may provide a way back to more fulfilling lives. (His own experiences with schizophrenia, he said, took a turn for the better when he was healed, he said, by a popular religious devotion.) He also wanted to stress stories where people — helped by their caretakers — found new opportunities to create, or just even get around. He began to seek out people, visiting a half dozen homes daily in the project’s early months.

He discovered that many people could work from home, sewing or making handicrafts, even if there were no proper government-financed centers or schools. That led him and Mr. Castañeda — helped by other photographers, business owners, volunteers and local government officials — to start workshops in art, a small business they could run at home as well as set up at artisan fairs to sell their creations.

“We wanted to do something with the arts, but that had a social aspect to it,” Mr. Millan said. “We did not want to be like vampires who take a picture or a story and leave. We wanted to do something for the people, which is more valuable.”

Among the people he profiled were Isaias, a blind man who got up every morning to fill his old car’s radiator with water; Camila, a young girl who uses a wheelchair and lives with her grandmother, who sews at home in order to keep an eye on the girl; and then there was Emis, a paralyzed woman who runs a group for people who paint using their feet or mouths. She wanted to be shown naked, on a bed, next to her boyfriend.

“When we spoke with her, she said it was amazing how there was a taboo about sexuality among the handicapped,” he said. “That photo was her chance to talk about sexuality.”

Mr. Millan helped organize exhibits that featured their works, too.

“Usually art exhibits are for a limited audience,” he explained. “But what was beautiful about this was we were able to bring the people that we worked with in our workshops. So the exhibition attracted a lot of handicapped people who saw the work and could identify with it.”

There was one limitation Mr. Millan faced that took some improvisation. Many of the homes he visited were small, with narrow passages or cramped rooms. Worse, he had only a wide-angle lens and a single flash unit, which presented a challenge for making panoramas that were evenly lighted. His solution was to make two or more images, each carefully lit and composed, then stitch them together during post-processing.

The project has given him a measure of satisfaction, being able to showcase stories that get lost in the shuffle.

“We let them talk about their concerns, even if to others they are invisible,” he said. “They are around us every day, but no one hears those experiences. We wanted to tell those stories. The good stories.”

For the FULL slideshow of  the 12 Andres Millan  photos: https://nyti.ms/2tW5sqU

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