My ongoing search for rusty metal, peeling paint, and broken glass to photograph has taken me to all sorts of distressed locales. I’ve wandered through long abandoned wire mills, defunct prisons, Mad Max style junkyards, deserted high schools, and shuttered railroad yards. These locations are almost always blanketed by a certain amount of melancholy. Each building was an important landmark to at least one person at one time or another. Whether it was a place of work that provided a livelihood, the first project of a budding architect, or the room where a student met their first crush, every place is held in one person’s memory as special and irreplaceable. If the people bound to these locations lived long enough to see them crumble, there’s no doubt they felt at least a twinge of pain and sadness at their demise.
As I use these locations to fuel my own creativity and art, I do try to keep these unknown persons in mind and be as respectful as I can of the ground they once walked upon. Which makes the process of making art out of photographs of Pennhurst State School and Hospital all the more problematic.
By all accounts, the lives of the mentally and physically disabled children who were cared for at the school/hospital during its operation were grim at best and horrifying at worst. A mid-sixties television exposé of the facility painted a terrifying portrait of overcrowding, neglect, and abuse. The viewing public at the time was shocked and repulsed by the report, but it took another full two decades before the school was finally shuttered. While the asylum and its inhabitants did provide a lightning rod of sorts for the way our country treats and cares for the physically and mentally disabled (leading to improvements in other facilities) its legacy of horrific treatment of human beings can never be erased.
I gained access to the school and grounds through an event run by a local photography group. We were there by permission (with an entry fee) from the latest owners of the property. They’re trying to renovate portions of the buildings and grounds for use as toured attractions touted as being paranormal in nature. Knowing everything that occurred here, how exactly do I justify my presence in such a place for purely artistic reasons with no historical or documentarian intent in mind? I’m not sure that I can.
I know there’s a larger discussion to be had about art and its ability to shine light on the more uncomfortable aspects of our society. I don’t think I’ve reached a point in my artistic life where I can convey those kinds of lofty messages and ideals in my photographs. To be entirely honest, I’m not sure I ever will. The best I can do is be respectful of the places I visit, be mindful of their history, and try to portray them in way that doesn’t exploit the people who lived through their rise and fall.
I’m still unsure about my presence at the abandoned asylum and how my visit, whether intentional or not, contributed to the future of the facility in its current form as an entertainment venue. The most I can hope for is that the images I created at the abandoned asylum captured a small glimpse of the kind of life its inhabitants endured.