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Photographing the Sweet Crazies of Addis Ababa

Ethiopia's iconic mentally ill have more style than any model on any catwalk.

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 doesn’t sound very PC, but it is a very affectionate term.


       When I got home from my trip I couldn’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 clinic’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.

 “Whenever someone is suffering from a mental disorder, people frequently think that evil spirits have taken over his or her body,” said the anonymous spokesman. “Out of fear families end up kicking their own kids onto the streets. Furthermore, the people who are aware of their problems often don’t know how to treat them. Many consider a holy water treatment to be the only possible solution.” 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, “These 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.”


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.

Jan Hoek is showing these and more portraits of Sweet Crazies at Amsterdam's Artpocalypse Collective gallery untill the 12th of November. It's great and you should go. Find all the details here.