Jon Crispin is a professional photographer from Pelham, Massachusetts. His striking photographs of abandoned New York State prisons and asylums provide a rare glimpse into the lives of the often over-looked and forgotten segments of society. His current project, photo documenting 429 suitcases that belonged to patients of the Williard Psychiatric Center, opens a window to the personalities of the people treated there, some of whom never left.
Sarah O’Connor: I’m thrilled to be able to interview you for my blog, geneartistry.com. My intent is to encourage people to bring artistic ideas and sensibility to their study of family history. Recently, I’ve set out to interview people who I feel are making a positive contribution to this mission. Photography is such a powerful way to connect art and history.
I’m eager to share your suitcase project with my readers but first, please tell me a little about yourself. What first interested you in photography? When and how did you get started?
Jon Crispin: I developed my first roll of film at summer camp when in my early teens. In college I majored in art, but no photography classes were offered, so I pretty much learned it on my own. (With lots of help from mentors and friends.)
Sarah: It appears from your website that you and your camera have been in prisons and asylums the past few years. You’ve captured some beautiful and haunting images of abandoned buildings. What inspired you to photograph these locations and how did the experience impact you?
Jon: Even as a young child, I was excited about going into places that weren’t necessarily “open to the public”. Once I became a working photographer (in 1974), I realized that I could combine the two interests, and when I started shooting abandoned 19th century New York State Asylums everything just jelled. I have basically done this sort of project work since then (along with my regular freelance work).
Sarah: One of your projects has garnered international attention. Can you tell us about the Willard Asylum suitcase project? How did you learn of the suitcases?
Jon: I started shooting at the Willard Asylum (later the Willard Psychiatric Center) in Willard, New York in 1983. It was one of four asylums in my Silent Voices project. In 2004 I learned of an exhibit at the New York State Museum featuring a collection of 420 suitcases that were “rediscovered” by Willard staff as the psych center was being closed by the state. The exhibit featured several of the cases, and the stories of the patients who owned them. I knew immediately that I wanted to document the entire collection. I approached my friend Craig Williams, who is a curator at the museum and he helped me get permission to start shooting. My first day with the cases was in March of 2011. In October of that year I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to be able to devote a lot of time to the work. In the Spring of 2013, my photographs were featured in an exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco as part of “The Changing Face of What is Normal”.
Sarah: Many genealogists are left to piece together the lives and personalities of their ancestors from little newspaper clippings or other tiny mementos left behind. All of the items that you found in these suitcases must have meant something to the patients who owned them. Seeing these items now after the patients have passed away is so intimate. How did you feel as you unwrapped, opened and arranged their belongings?
Jon: This is a great question, and one I am asked often. My overall response is to feel honored to even be able to touch these items, let alone photograph them. While I don’t attach any “cosmic” significance to the objects, I do feel a great reverence for them, and to the people who brought the cases and their possessions to Willard. It is definitely an intense experience working with the suitcases, and I often find that I need to put my cameras down and just feel the emotional connection to the patients and their belongings.
Sarah: What was your methodology for photographing the suitcases? What did you most hope to capture?
Jon: As a photographer, I am not really interested in “set up” shots. The hardest part of this project for me is to arrange the objects, and I don’t like to spend tons of time moving things around in order to make a picture.
In terms of what I hope to capture, I always go for feeling. I never enter a project with an agenda; I always prefer to let the viewer take away what they will from my photographs. In the case of the suitcases, I primarily feel that I am a conduit for the inherent emotional quality of the objects. And they are very powerful objects.
Sarah: Was their one suitcase that was particularly memorable? What about it captivated you?
Jon: I can honestly say that I don’t have any favorites. I view each one individually; they all have something interesting to offer.
Sarah: Restrictive laws have made it difficult to research medical records and patient lists from asylums. Were you able to learn about the patients that owned these suitcases? Have any relatives surfaced since you started the project?
Jon: I try to stay away from knowing too much about the patients, although the New York State Museum exhibit in 2004 featured some of their stories. I am much more interested in what the suitcases tell me about their owners lives. As you may imagine, I get many inquiries from relatives of Willard patients seeking information, but my only option is to refer them to the New York State Office of Mental Health and the New York State Archives in Albany.
Sarah: This project must have been a massive undertaking. What was your biggest challenge?
Jon: This is also a great question. No doubt, it is a massive undertaking, but I feel so fortunate to have access to this amazing collection that I really only see the positives. I suppose the biggest challenge is balancing my desire to work exclusively on the suitcases with my need to continue my freelance work.
Sarah: Seeing and reading about your work will likely inspire many readers to learn more about photography and possibly try their hand at photographing their own heirlooms. Is there any advice that you can give to someone just starting out?
Jon: It doesn’t take expensive professional photo gear to make good photographs. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in family heirlooms to document their family history with photography. With digital cameras, once the initial investment is made, the costs are very reasonable. The only way to improve photo skills is to shoot a ton, experiment, and figure out what works.
Sarah: What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
Jon: I anticipate working with the suitcases for at least a few more years (and probably more). Because Willard was such an unique institution, I have become very interested in former staff and patients and will eventually start photographing and interviewing the people who spent time at the institution before it closed.
You can support the Williard Suitcase project by making a pledge to Kickstarter. For more information about Jon Crispin please visit his website http://www.joncrispin.com/ or his blog, http://joncrispinposts.com/ .