Travel

Heartbreaking Photos from the Life of a Hoarder

Photographer Arnaud Chochon spent a year with Jean, a 60-year-old hoarder whose house is cleaned out once a year, for health and safety reasons.

by Glenn Cloarec; photos by Arnaud Chochon
Jun 7 2017, 3:15pm

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

In the Russian classic novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, the main character, Plyushkin, spends all his time searching the streets around his home for clutter to fill his extremely messy house. Plyushkin's syndrome, or Diogenes syndrome, is a complex form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, characterized by excessive hoarding, social withdrawal, and self-neglect, usually affecting people over 60.

In an interview with Le Figaro in 2016, Dr. Jean-Claude Monfort, a neurologist, and specialist on the subject, explained that the disorder is often caused by a "traumatic incident experienced during early childhood" or from a condition like schizophrenia or Alzheimer's.

Photographer Arnaud Chochon recently spent a year documenting the daily life of Jean, a 60-year-old Frenchman, who has been diagnosed as affected by Plyushkin's syndrome. Arnaud's work generally focuses on difficult personal stories, and when they met, Arnaud immediately knew Jean's story was worth telling. But that doesn't mean Jean immediately welcomed him and his camera with open arms.

"It was very difficult to approach him," Arnaud says. "I had to gain his trust. We had long conversations in the street on so many occasions before he finally allowed me into his house. But we ended up being very close."

"At the same time every night, Jean roams the streets, always taking the same route, looking for what he is most interested in: food to feed himself, and books and newspapers to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. He hoards all kinds of objects, no matter what their use or value may be," Arnaud tells me.

"His way of life is unusual, but he just has his own logic that differs from our own. For example, to respect the environment, he dries out the food he takes home from trash bins, reducing their total volume so that the city's garbage incinerators can work more efficiently. He sleeps propped up by newspapers on his bed."

Jean says that his "interest in trash bins" started in 1995, a long time before he quit his job as a building technician in 2002. "One day I saw some sausages lying on top of a trash bin," he tells me. "I picked them up and took them home with me. I gave them to my dad who really enjoyed them. Finding different things every day was a lot more fun than doing crap in the office." He now lives off the things he finds, and off some money from a family inheritance.

"He is very cultured and well-read," Arnaud says of Jean. "He remembers everything that he read in the paper or heard on the radio, and he regularly goes to art exhibitions and conferences. We spent a lot of time discussing history and current affairs. But he hardly has any human contact. "

Once a year, Jean is forced to have some human contact. For health and safety reasons, the council insists on hiring a cleaning company to carry out an annual check of his flat and clean it—a service Jean has to pay for. "When that happens, he tries to put his most prized possessions to one side of his flat, and save all his newspapers and books," Arnaud explains.

"During the two days an intervention like that takes, they throw away everything he's collected over the year. It's a tough moment for him. I was there during those days, and it was very tense. Jean does the best he can to save most of his things, but he can't go up against four people who have all come at the same time to empty his apartment."

But the moment the cleaners leave, Jean goes back into town with the same goal as always—to fill his home with the food containers, newspapers, and other stuff he finds.

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Photography
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hoarder
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Diogenes Syndrome
Plyushkin Syndrome