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Art Thu Mar 04 2010
The eyes of the mentally ill are lost but not vacant, as they stare past visitors who enter Eugene Richards' exhibit at the Gage Gallery of Roosevelt University, titled A Procession of Them: The Plight of the Mentally Disabled. Through his volunteer work with the human rights organization Mental Disability Rights International, Richards experienced and photographed the nightmare of concentration camp like conditions, serving to hold the mentally ill in countries including Mexico, Argentina, Hungary, Paraguay, and Kosovo.
"There's an old woman who's been here about forty years, left over from the past," describes a grandmotherly woman who should be in a warm bed, surrounded by loving friends and relatives at the end of her life. Instead she stands alone in Richards' photo, completely forgotten by the outside world. Quotes from prisoners and others involved in the travesty of these institutions scatter the walls, and offer further emotional context to the incomprehensible reality confronted by this series of photographs.
Eugene Richards, an award winning documentary photographer, does not allow the trauma of this situation to escape the eyes and hearts of viewers. In one photo, he captures a young boy whose stump leg has been tied to a window and is unable to leave his bed. Another presents men being wiped down with a gloved hand as freezing water bathes them like dogs in the communal showers. They stand shivering and helpless, without towels to dry off.
A Procession of Them is frightening, but real. Although not a view of life that is enjoyable to experience, the effect that Richards succeeds in creating is powerfully unavoidable. The words of a patient capture the impact best- "I don't like it here. It feels like a prison that kills."
Eugene Richards' exhibit is up in Gage Gallery at 18 S. Michigan Ave until May 14th.