Behind the walls of a mental hospital

Story highlights

  • Photographer Aun Raza gained unfettered access to a Pakistan mental hospital
  • His photos of patients are remarkably intimate and candid

(CNN)Photographer Aun Raza had been warned that chronic mental patients could be fearsome, threatening and even violent.

But after he was allowed unfettered access inside the Punjab Institute of Mental Health in Lahore, Pakistan, Raza found the opposite: a group of sensitive, open and trusting people who eventually befriended him.
From 2011 to 2014, Raza used a camera to document the shuttered lives of dozens of adults who've been identified as mentally ill or disabled. He came away with remarkably candid and intimate images from a cloistered world we rarely see.
    "There is a desire in them to be seen, to be given attention -- and above all -- to be loved," said Raza, a Lahore native.
    After about 70 hospital visits, Raza said he found something surprising: Some patients, he thought, were saner than many people he encountered in daily life outside the hospital.
    Photographer Aun Raza
    The whole experience prompted Raza to question society's perspective on the mentally ill and disabled.
    "They are seen as lesser beings," Raza said. "But the supposed insanity that is labeled on them is not any worse than the sanity outside."
    He said he heard stories about families using mental facilities as a place to dump troubled relatives.
    After long-term treatment, many patients eventually return home to their families. But in many cases, relatives can't handle the cost or administration of prescription drugs, he said. That often forces patients back to the asylum.
    "The cure really never leads them back home," Raza said.
    As a result, many patients end up spending most of their lives shut away from society, he said: "A few of them die natural deaths there. Some of them at times commit suicide."
    Being a patient at the facility -- which is widely known as Lahore Mental Hospital -- doesn't necessarily mean they never leave. Raza said the hospital is reminiscent in some ways to the 1975 movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," because one patient has made a habit of escaping to snatch a quick taste of life on the outside.
    In the Oscar-winning film, Jack Nicholson's character checks into a hospital pretending to have mental symptoms and then helps patients sneak outside the asylum to enjoy a day trip on a boat.
    A patient at Lahore Mental Hospital, a former professor, has been known to disappear for days -- "at times, months," Raza said. During his escapes, the ex-professor likes to sample his favorite foods and survive by begging for money on the street, Raza said. But he always ended up "casually coming back" to the asylum.
    "He's the kind of person who cannot survive in normal society," Raza said. "As a person, he's wonderful. He has so much to say all the time. He recites literature -- Shakespeare and classical poetry -- by heart."

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    "I experienced moments when I felt I could actually live in this place," Raza said. "I'm friends with almost all of them. I go there very frequently. I'm not just a photographer coming in to take their picture and going out. It's a real relationship."
    Many patients displayed a "superior emotional sensitivity," which Raza said is sometimes the real reason for their hospitalization. "The outer world discards anyone who's emotionally too sensitive or too fragile," he said.
    Raza's images can be heartbreaking, or even disturbing. Some veer toward bittersweet, like the photo of a frail man in a hat who's touching his ears. The man is about 80 years old, Raza said. He's been a patient at the hospital for about 45 years.
    "He speaks very little," Raza said. "He's an immensely lovely person, a very tender person. But he doesn't remember anything. All he remembers is his name. That's it."
    A particularly striking photo shows a father and his 22-year-old mentally disabled son at the hospital embracing shortly after they first arrived.
    As the tearful scene played out in front of Raza, the son sang a traditional song about a broken-hearted lover. Raza said the young man had been through a difficult breakup of his own.
    Next, the emotions became too much -- even for Raza. "I embraced both of them, too," he said. "It was a very powerful moment. I had tears in my eyes."
    The son's parents had very high hopes their son would be cured within two weeks, Raza said. More than a year later, Raza said the son was still a patient in the asylum.
    Another poignant photo shows a man in bed who's smiling while holding his hands around a large, floating soap bubble.
    On the day he took the photo, Raza had brought the man a bottle of soap bubbles. "I bring things for them that they would like," he said. "Things they ask for, because they rarely enjoy entertainment of their choice."
    The man, who'd been a patient for about 18 years, liked to say "good luck," Raza said. "He says that quite regularly."
    Raza blew a bubble and sent it floating towards the patient.
    The patient tried to touch the bubble, but it burst, Raza recalled. Suddenly, the patient blurted out, "Good luck!"
    That surprised Raza. "He actually said 'good luck' to the bubble," Raza said. "It was a very lovely moment."