Get To Know | Sanne Kabalt

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Sanne Kabalt is an artist who works with photography and writing in the realms of illness, death, madness and loss. Her latest work is a book on empathy in the psychological healthcare sector, created at the intersectoral art residency ‘’Het Vijfde Seizoen’’. In this book she portrays the lives of people that are taken up in the clinic, through lens as well as text. We spoke to her about her project and methods.

This book is the result of your residency at Het Vijfde Seizoen, where a psychiatric clinic is located as well. Did this experience change your view on mental health issues and its treatments?

Well, I was intrigued and personally very driven to get to know more about mental illness, but I had little experience with this before I came to Het Vijfde Seizoen. It was so close to my subject matter however, for in my work I am continuously attempting to somehow find a visual form for invisible psychological aspects of humanity. In Het Vijfde Seizoen I lived and worked for three months in close proximity to people who are very ill and confused. It took a long time to get to know patients and earn their trust. I participated in many therapy groups, went to walks and church services on the terrain, I sang songs, baked cakes, joined dinners; I was everywhere, in order to meet patients. To get back to your question, I don’t think a ‘change’ in my view is the right word, it is more like it expanded. With time, through actually living there and seeing people daily, I got to know some patients intimately and I was deeply touched by them. It became clear that despite their mental conditions - and often because of them - these people were so like us, like me. And in some cases the craziness could be something I admired, for example a complete lack of wanting to behave in a manner that is socially acceptable and polite could be very refreshing. Many people were willing to be extremely open, once they knew me. If I asked a simple question such as ‘How are you today?’ I would receive an answer that exposed their deepest fears and told me all about the voices in their head. I wish that supposedly sane people would answer that question so honestly. I guess all in all my view on mental health issues became much more complex and layered, based on a multitude of personal stories and encounters.

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In Sanne's blog she tells about her work as a photographer. Moreover she mentions that photography is often described as “to capture a moment. to capture a moment, to capture a person, to capture a feeling - though, problematically, it suggests the imprisonment of the subject matter. Once something is captured it is no longer out there, no longer wild, no longer free. It is contained and that’s when you should begin doubting its reality''. As a reaction to that, she says, both interesting and though provoking: '’The question is how can I use photography to dissolve margins as opposed to capturing anything or anyone?’’

In our eyes you have been able to dissolve these margins in your latest book ‘Zolang je niet zo over problemen praat zie je er toch niks van’. How did the process behind these photographs go as opposed to ‘’conventional’’ photography?

Photography and psychiatry have a history. Photographs have been used to show what a crazy person looks like. Labelling people: This is a hysterical woman. This is a schizophrenic man. That kind of practice is precisely what I mean with the danger of ‘capturing’ someone, for a person is always so much more than one thing, one moment, one image. I decided to show people in conversation, giving them the agency not to pose, but to speak, to make gestures, to be alive in a sense. In the book I combine photographs of these conversations with textual excerpts of the conversations. Often I show several images of the same person, so you can see different sides of someone. And during the process of working with these images I played with them a lot, cropping and cutting them and using crayons to erase or emphasize certain parts of the images. A consequence of this is that as a viewer you become quite aware of the maker of these images, you realise that I have chosen and edited these moments. That is important to me; I would like you to be aware that yes, I am showing you representations of real people, real conversations, but it is my view on them that I share, my selection, never the whole truth. I want to be transparent in this and I think my ambiguous feelings towards the idea of capturing or representing someone come out through the work in these subtle ways.

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How did you come up with the beautiful title ‘Zolang je niet zo over problemen praat zie je er toch niks van*’?  (*translated: As long as you don't talk about problems so much you won't see them anyway.)

It was a phrase by one of the patients, during a conversation and photographing session in Het Vijfde Seizoen. It is one of my favourite quotes and the longer I thought about it, the more it came to symbolise the whole project to me. The book is about problems, about sharing problems and empathizing with them, and the form I used is this combination of words and photographs. I honesty believe if the words were not there, you would have very little idea of the problems of these people, the text does a lot of work in revealing them. So in a sense I agree with this her words: as long as you don’t talk about it… I liked using this phrase as a title because it questions the work itself; it questions the relation between image and text.

In your book you wrote a passage in which you instruct the reader to imagine how it is to be someone else - how it is to suffer from psychosis, hearing voices in your head, to not be able to dress and undress yourself and how to experience pain which only exists in your head. How did the use of imagination steer your work?

Well, I think imagination is the main part of empathy. To imagine you are some one you are not and to feel what that person is feeling. Of course you can never fully do it, you won’t become the other. Imagination can be something very dangerous in that sense, because you think you know, you think you have a clear image of someone else’s struggle, while it is always your projection. But without any imagination I think it would be impossible to thoroughly relate to others. You have to be able to go beyond the self a bit sometimes, as long as you stay aware of who you are and keep doubting the accuracy of your imagination. I think that is how I worked, how I related to these people – from a place of imagination as well as a place of doubt.

To finish, is there a question or a feeling that you would give to the people who are reading your book?  

To me it is important that a work of art can mean something different to every person who engages with it. There is always a certain openness in my work, and I invite you to fill it with your own associations and recollections. But of course I do have wishes for what the work will do. I hope this book will make you laugh and cry, and that it will make you empathize with the people in it, as well as look at yourself, your own problems and your own craziness anew.

Thanks Sanne! You can buy her book here.

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