The Oregon State Hospital is best known as the place where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed. Nurse Ratched, Big Chief, Randle McMurphy, Billy Bibbitt, electro-shock, lobotomy, the whole bit. Photographically, folks might also know it from Mary Ellen Mark's book Ward 81. The place has an intense history.
In 2005, The Oregonian focused new attention on the hospital. I collaborated with Oregonian reporter Michelle Roberts to tell stories about the deteriorating physical conditions as well as reports of abuse there. Try as I might, I could not get access to make documentary photographs of patients at the hospital — at least not the kind that I wanted. My challenge was to try to make photographs that spoke to the reality of living in the hospital, without being able to show that directly.
I pitched to hospital officials my idea of photographing physical details and interior landscapes — without showing patients. They finally agreed to give me limited access to do that. They too wanted to show people the deterioration of the physical plant. I hoped I could convey the feeling of the place — even without people.
Multiple times I showed up at 3:30 AM, when all the patients were in their rooms, and was escorted into the hospital (part of the deal was that I wasn’t allowed even to see patients, much less photograph them). I could go to certain public areas and uninhabited places to make pictures. Our reporting focused on the squalid conditions of the decaying "J" building, where I found the remains of pigeons, abandoned toys, and a system of hoses and buckets to keep water from dripping into living quarters.
One morning, in another part of the hospital, the building services person asked if I wanted to see something really extraordinary. He led me into a small room about the size of a two-person office. Lining the walls were shelves of about 3,500 copper canisters holding the unclaimed ashes — the cremains — of patients who had died at the hospital.
I set up my tripod and medium-format camera and shot about six or seven frames. I knew I had witnessed something extraordinary. As far as I can tell, I was the first photographer to photograph the cremains room.
Besides the powerful reporting by Michelle, The Oregonian won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials challenging officials to address problems at the hospital.
The fallout was dramatic. State Sen. Peter Courtney led a campaign to improve conditions at the hospital and to honor and respect the cremains. A memorial and a registry were established. Families found long-lost relations. Photographer David Maisel published a book of huge portraits of the cans, and Ondi Timoner and Robert James made the documentary “Library of Dust.” (If you watch the trailer you'll see clips from an interview with me.)
Most importantly, people once forgotten were remembered.©The Oregonian.