There are many people who suffer from mental illness in this world and most of them seem to be in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. I found this out on a school trip. The first one I saw was having an animated chat with the sky in the middle of a roundabout. He had put cigarettes in both of his nostrils, wore 70s pilot sunglasses and his outfit was a hodgepodge of frayed, worn-out, wonderfully matching pieces of clothing. He looked like a mythical figure. When I approached him he threw a rock at my head. During the rest of my trip I saw hundreds more, all of them better dressed than any model on any catwalk. They wore bottles, homemade hats or entirely leatherette outfits. The phenomenon is so huge in Ethiopia they even have a name for this group of people: Sweet Crazies. It doesn’t sound very PC, but it’s a very affectionate term.
When I got back home 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 some statistics, 15 percent of Ethiopian adults (i.e. 12 million people in total) 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 after I agreed not to mention his name or the name of the centre. 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 out 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.”
I get that being a Sweet Crazy isn’t a sweet deal and that most of them are in real need of therapy or medication, but they seemed to me to be more than victims. I’m probably being naïve, but the pride and dignity with which they carry themselves is simply too striking. I wonder how many of them are designated ill just because they looked the part?
Out of respect for the Sweet Crazies I decided I wouldn’t photograph them in the littered streets. Instead, I shot them the typically Ethiopian photo studios filled with Roman pillars and golden thrones. These are the kind of places that newlyweds go to look pimped up and wealthy in ivory suits. Together with my Ethiopian matie 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, kicked off, and we were chased out of the studio by a gang of guards with sticks. The next day I ran into the guy on the streets. 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, from this Saturday, 8th of October, untill the 12th of November. It's great and you should go – find all the details here.