Photographer Robin Hammond on story behind Nigeria picture

Rehabilitation facility outside the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt

As 2012 draws to a close I have invited five photographers to talk about the story behind one of their pictures taken this year.

Today photographer Robin Hammond looks at the events surrounding a picture he took at a rehabilitation facility outside the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt as part of an ongoing series entitled Condemned, which explores mental health issues in Africa.

It's a tough piece of work, hard to look at sometimes, but one that shines a light on an important issue so be sure to check out more of Hammond's work on his website once you have read the story in his own words.

Robin Hammond

They are hidden in the dark forgotten corners of churches, live out their lives on the filthy floors of prisons, and lie motionless, chained to rusting hospital beds. They rarely complain - life has taught them that they will not be heard, and they do not ask for help, they know none will come.

I first met Africans with mental illness in countries going through crisis while covering South Sudan's referendum for independence. It should have been a story about a hopeful future, but what I saw was the legacy of a violent and destructive past.

In Juba Central Prison men and women that had committed no crime were shackled to floors. Some of them had mental disability before the war and others were traumatised by it. Without a hospital or any other provision for them, prison had become their home.

Robin Hammond

Robin Hammond

Born in New Zealand 1975, Hammond moved to the UK in 2002 and began working as a freelance photographer. He has since become best known for his investigative work on human rights and environmental issues, often having to work undercover or in conditions of extreme hardship.

His investigation into the trafficking and exploitation of child footballers in West Africa was shortlisted for a One World Award in 2008 and his work from Zimbabwe later in the same year was short listed for the Care International Prize for Humanitarian photography at the Visa pour l'Image festival in Perpignan.

In 2009 his story An Unforgivable Truth won an Amnesty International Media Award and in 2010 he repeated the feat twice over, picking up awards for Toxic Jeans and Zimbabwe's Blood Diamonds.

He is now based between Paris, France and Cape Town, South Africa, from where he documents stories across the continent.

This started me on a journey that took me to Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya and most recently to Nigeria. I discovered a people abandoned by their governments, the aid community, and entire societies.

Nigeria is not in war like some of the other places I went to. It is an exceedingly wealthy country. The oil industry that has brought billions of dollars into the Nigerian economy though, has arguably been a disaster for the Delta region from where it is extracted. Corruption, mass inequality and violence have plagued the area ever since the discovery of the resource.

I visited this so-called rehabilitation facility (pictured) outside the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt. It is run by the state government and holds over 170 people with mental illness or mental disability. It was originally designed as a facility to assist widows. In 1999 it was converted into a place of incarceration for homeless people with mental illness. They were cleared off the streets in a 'clean-up' in anticipation of the Fifa World Youth Soccer Championship.

The staff told me that no children stayed here but I soon found one mentally impaired child about eight years old sleeping on the floor in the room for the "high risk" male inmates. Staff changed their story and said the child had been there for three months but they weren't sure what to do with him. Then I found another child about 14 was sleeping on the floor in the same room.

My fixer distracted the staff while I hurried through other buildings on the premises. I saw a young man who had one leg amputated, his other leg looked to be rotting. The smell was confirmation. Many patients were in chains. One man was in handcuffs so tight that his wrists were badly swollen. Staff became worried about me being there. I had permission to visit but they didn't want me taking photos. My fixer told me that earlier he'd seen one of the staff driving away a corpse in the boot of his car.

From his enormous office table in his equally outsized office, the state minister responsible for the facility blamed foreign non-governmental organisations for not providing them with the help they needed to provide proper mental health care.

In the Niger Delta, like many other regions in Africa in crisis, it seems mental health is no-one's problem.

Robin Hammond is a member of Panos Pictures.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    What happens after we depose leaders, who steps into the power vacuum? We can't run these countries by wire, and the UN has neither then mandate nor the manpower to do so,nor would there be the will in the Security Council
    No good saying kick out 'X',you can try to work with people or you can work against them.The UN was formed to try to prevent wars.
    Much has changed but much that is bad remains

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    c_cat, Hammond has spent a vast amount of his own hard-earned money and worked often at risk of his own safety over the past few yrs documenting the horrific treatment of mental health patients in some African countries. Instead of throwing accusations of exploitation perhaps you should realise that without journalists like him the plight of these people would never be brought to light.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    People seem to like condemning the photographer for either taking the photograph or earning a living form what he does. Would you know about this activity if it wasn't for him putting his body on the line to report it? Do you work for nothing? He is doing a job, a good job - GET OVER IT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I have sympathy for the child in the photograph, but I shall no longer be giving anything to African charities, no matter the cause As a country we have given billions to Africa over the years and as a people millions and yet nothing has changed. Its like pouring money down a drain. African countries have an abundance of resources available to them, it is time they used them to sort themselves out

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    No human was born to suffer, wicked world has left many struggle in doom of poverty, whiles the rich swims in their decorated paradise. Oh Nigeria my beloved country, when? when? will we have humanity free in our Nigeria? And when will the world intervain? Niger Delta should be one of the best city in Nigeria, stupid politicians has ruined the lives of Nigerians, it's late, nothing can be done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    What do you expect, when we live in a country run by the mentally ill!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    We wring our hands,knowiing that it's corrupt dictatorial regimes that siphon the aid money,and we demand UN action against these regimes.But UN action will be vetoed by the security council members that are themselves corrupt dictatorial regimes.The 1st job is to democratize the 2 offending superpowers(we know who they are,but my naming them will get this post removed)or remove them from the UN.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Africans GRRRRRRRRRRR when will we ever be sober enough to treat ourselves as human beings and not like amoeba.. Gosh i am gutted.. we want aid, we want aid,,,, but when aid comes it lands in a politicians pocket....aghhhhhhhhhh

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Nigeria cannot and must not be forgiven for this. its a shame in this day and age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Pretty much a standard 3rd world poverty photo. It's like thousands taken over the years. However, the problem is that photos like this keep donations to charity and aid coming. That in turn allows corrupt dictators and regimes to cream off 90% of aid which is why they have private jets and big Mercedes cars and children lie on old matresses, dying.

    We need more UN action to depose dictators.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It is all about money and power: the poor wretches one sees in these photos are humans and entitled to the same treatment as we all are, but they have neither the money nor the power to help them caim their rights and dignity. Meanwhile, as always, those who can make money from their desperate situation flourish: from government officials, down to this photographer who has his name on the photos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    That child needs urgent help, where exactly is all the aid we give to Africa going ?? those people are totally forgotten, thank goodness for the journalist exposing their plight, hopefully something will come of this for them . Meanwhile where is this childs mother because he needs he right now !

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Perhaps you could ask the photographers whether they consider their work to be at all exploitative. Not pointing the finger, just asking the question. He's also got his name in the bottom right hand corner of the photo above, so, presumably, he wants the world to know it's his. One of the links leads to a site where you can buy his photos...for a modest fee I'm sure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Why are the British so obsessed with romanticising Africa - as opposed to constructively criticising it ?


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