At the Punjab Institute of Mental Health in Lahore, Pakistan, reports Venice-based photographer Marylise Vigneau, Bollywood songs and melodies of devotion and religious lamentation ring out through the facility’s 1400 beds. Here, she encountered agony and heartache, but she also uncovered moments of gentleness and delight. During her visits over three years, the residents blew soap bubbles, traded smokes, and listened as one older man recited John Keats in English.
Daily life in Lahore, admits the photographer, can be painful for those with mental illness. Behavioral quirks are met with prejudice and mistrust, and vulnerable psyches attract little compassion. Those suffering from psychiatric conditions are often taken to sfaith healers instead of receiving medical attention, and diagnosed individuals are generally seen as a burden upon their families.
Inside the hospital, however, Vigneau found empathy and generosity, both in the chronic patients and in their doctors, who provided valuable care and medication. Patients could remain within the facility for decades or depart and readjust to mainstream society. Some came in and out, but the place was always filled, writes the photographer, with the steady rhythm of “songs, dances, cries, tenderness, silences.”
“It is a world of its own, but sometimes I could feel more sanity and sensitivity here than outside the hospital,” confesses the photographer, who grew to consider some of the longterm residents her friends. Most of all, says Vigneau, “We played together.”
The photographer remembers one encounter in which a patient told her, “I have understood the purpose of life: enjoy, enjoy.” Peering through her lens, she found herself transfixed by hands and by the delicate motions they made when words seemed to fall short. Her series On the Other Hand, Lahore Mental Institute, is about love and longing in all its forms—love for Allah, romantic love, and perhaps more than anything, the pangs of love unrequited.
Vigneau adds the following: “I wish to thank Doctor Nusrat Rana who was the Chief Psychiatrist of the hospital. The love she inspired to her patients was obvious and the day she left for retirement many were crying. I also wish to thank Aun Raza, who is a wonderful photographer and without whom the mood of the place would have been very different and the words lost for ever.”
All images © Marylise Vigneau