In 2008 I squatted for 6 weeks in Slab City – an off the grid itinerant camp in Southern California, home to the mentally ill, addicted, societally rejected and bravely non-conformist. I was confronting my own experiences with these problems. Silenced by the shame and stigma surrounding mental health, I felt unable to express the most important events in my life. Instead I pretended to be a journalist, took photos and made a story about “others”. It was therapeutic, and the work eventually allowed me to discuss these problems in more personal terms. Eight years on I have continued to learn about and deal with mental health and addiction both in my own life and through my photography.
While there are many communities all over the world affected by addiction and mental health crises, Slab City is unique, and warrants further examination. Its isolation from mainstream society has allowed a unique culture of acceptance and freedom to emerge. Slab City would easily qualify as one of the most marginalised communities in the developed world, yet it’s residents feel more at peace here, than in mainstream society. Lack of interaction with punitive governments, and judgemental societies means they now live with their problems, but without the stigma. Photographing this particular angle to the mental health story should stimulate discussion around the negative effects of stigma on these peoples’ lives.
Scientists’ are now doing their part too. New epigenetic research is giving further insight into the psychological debate of nature vs nurture, proving that our genes can switch mental illness on or off, depending on life experience. This new research allows science to lead a more compassioned approach to mental health issues, and invalidates the common assertion that these are problems of the “weak willed” or problems of choice – two of the most harmful, yet persistent assertions around mental health. The stories I gathered from the residents at Slab City are of immense hardship, unfathomable to most. By framing their lives in light of this new scientific discovery we can present a logical argument for eliminating the harmful stigma people with mental illness experience.
Addiction and mental health is finally being viewed as a political problem. Obama called the addiction epidemic in the USA a bipartisan issue, and many candidates in the 2016 USA election have made addiction and mental health policy platforms. Is the time finally coming for people with mental illness to have their social and political revolution?
- Slab City, Dave and Liz, 2008.
Dave and Liz, partners, live in Slab City, despite objection from their relatives who believe they should be in treatment facilities for mental illness.
- Slab City, Fallen Flag, 2008
A typical residence at Slab City.
- Slab City, Carol and Gary, 2008
Carol and Gary bathe in the hot spring. There is no access to public water in Slab City so the residents use the local hot spring, or the near by canal to bathe.
- Slab City, Trailer Interior, 2008
Trailer interior at Slab City.
- Slab City, Golf – An American Tradition, 2008
This is Stan, an elderly man, who lives in a trailer without electricity in the searing desert heat amongst the filth of empty rye bottles and cigarette butts, in urine stained pants, barely able to walk, but he insists it is his preference and choice to be there. Better there than in a hospital or an old age facility where he will be forced to change his ways.
- Slab City, Lucy and her cats, 2008
On this day Lucy was feeding her 9 cats bread and beans because she couldn’t afford cat food.
- Slab City, Tarantular, 2008
On Thursday nights the community gather to play live music and hang out. Here, Gary Plays with Carol, while Carol play’s with a tarantula.
- Slab City, Red, 2008
Red smokes a cigarette outside his trailer. He lives in Slab City seasonally, travelling through various free camping spots, following the mildest weather.
- Slab City, Salvation Mountain, 2008
Leonard Knight and his folk art creation “Slavation Mountain”. Leonard lives in his car and relies on charity to get by. He has spent the last 30 years building this monument to God that lies at the gateway of Slab City.
- Slab City, Sunrise, 2008
With no access to waste disposal, people dump their trash in the surrounding area.
© Claire Martin – Text and images