Sometimes, I wonder what it’s really like to lose your mind. Even the phrase lose your mind is a strange one. It’s not like it’s really gone — I mean something is going on up there. Just, not exactly what’s going on in everyone else’s mind. In Ethiopia, the problem of mental illness is a widespread phenomenon, with an estimated 15% of all adults affected, or just over 12 million folks. Due to the lack of psychiatric care facilities however, most of these people live on the street. Referred to, perhaps endearingly and perhaps pejoratively, as the Sweet Crazies, Ethiopia’s mentally ill fascinated photographer Jan Hoek, so much so, that they became the focus of his latest portrait project, and a resulting gallery exhibition in Amsterdam.
Rather than simply documenting the Sweet Crazies in the streets though, Hoek decided to pose their portraits against a backdrop of thrones, pillars and colorful backgrounds — typically the scene of Ethiopian wedding portraits. Along with the portraits, Hoek includes a few anecdotes, recounting his experiences in Addis Ababa, and the colorful personalities he encountered along the way. Troubling as their broader context may be, the shots are practically iconic, approaching a difficult and strange reality in an original way.
Jan Hoek on The Sweet Crazies:
The first metally ill person I saw in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was having an animated chat with the sky in the middle of a roundabout. He had cigarettes in both of his nostrils, wore aviator sunglasses, and his outfit was a hodgepodge of frayed, worn-out, wonderfully matching pieces of clothing. He looked like a mythical figure, and when I approached him he threw a rock at my head. During the rest of my trip I saw hundreds of others like him, all dressed better than any model on any catwalk. They wore bottles, homemade hats, or entirely leatherette outfits. The phenomenon is so widespread in Ethiopia they even have a name for this group of people: Sweet Crazies. It doesnâ€™t sound very PC, but it is a very affectionate term.
When I got home from my trip I couldnâ€™t get the Sweet Crazies out of my mind, so I decided to go back to Ethiopia to do a photo project on the stylish insane. According to the World Health Organization, 15 percent of Ethiopian adults (12 million people) suffer from mental illness. Yet there is only one psychiatric clinic in the whole country.
I went to visit the clinic, but the clinicâ€™s spokesperson would only talk to me on the condition that I not mention his name or the name of the center. It was a miserable place. The Sweet Crazies were wandering the corridors sadly, with their heads shaved and their festive outfits exchanged for boring pyjamas.
â€œWhenever someone is suffering from a mental disorder, people frequently think that evil spirits have taken over his or her body,â€ said the anonymous spokesman. â€œOut of fear families end up kicking their own kids onto the streets. Furthermore, the people who are aware of their problems often donâ€™t know how to treat them. Many consider a holy water treatment to be the only possible solution.â€ The holy water treatment takes place in a church, where a priest in a black robe splashes water on the mentally ill with a gardening hose. According to the spokesman more people should be treated scientifically. He hates the term Sweet Crazy and told me, â€œThese people are patients who suffer from a disease. By giving them such a name you automatically stigmatize them. It implies that they cannot help but being crazy.â€
Out of respect for the Sweet Crazies I decided not to photograph them in the littered streets. Instead, I shot them in typical Ethiopian photo studios filled with Roman pillars and golden thrones. These are the kind of places newlyweds go to look wealthy in ivory suits.
Together with my Ethiopian pal Solomon, I spent a month trying to make friends with the Sweet Crazies in order to get them to participate in the project.
Many Sweet Crazies were flattered by the idea and would kiss and cuddle me after shoots. Some of them turned out to be pretty edgy. One guy completely lost it when another client made a cruel joke, and we were chased out of the studio by a gang of guards with sticks. When I ran into the guy on the street the next day he seemed to have forgotten about the whole ordeal and, as if nothing had happened, cheerfully waved at me.