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Provincia di Ravenna

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Istituto per i Beni Culturali Emilia-Romagna

Memoria e Ricerca

Eye witness.The photographic image and the abolition of mental asylums in Italy

di Maddalena Carli
in Memoria e Ricerca n.s. 47 (2014), p. 99

In my article I will survey and analyse the photographs taken in psychiatric hospitals in the period of the passing of law n° 180 (13 May 1978). It is well known that many photographers – not only Italian – decided to photograph psychiatric hospitals saying that with their work they wanted to contribute to the fight for their closure. On entering the gates of the institutions, before meeting the subjects to portray, they met the directors (Franco Basaglia himself or his close assistants), and agreed on times, limits and the purpose of their coming to the asylum, as well as on their contact with the staff, the patients and their families. How did Carla Cerati, Gianni Berengo Gardin, Gian Butturini, Raymond Depardon, Uliano Lucas, Luciano D’Alessandro, just to mention some of the professional photographers involved, relate to mental illness and the mentally ill? What kind of images were produced in the name of a documentary style whose claims to realism have been debated ever since the time of Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration? To what extent did these images manage to get over a boundary wall which was – as more recent historiography has shown – certainly not impervious to social interactions and practices but absolutely impenetrable to the gaze and the perception of the human eye? Keywords: Psychiatric photograph, Photographic book, Asylum, Image, Social reportage, Documentary style