Big Brother is a moving portrait of Louis Quail‘s older brother, Justin, who suffers from Schizophrenia. It’s a loving call to see beyond the disease, to see the humanity in difference, and a sort of love story, tracking the relationship between Justin and his long-term girlfriend Jackie, and it was the Charcoal Book Club photobook of the month for May, 2020.
State-sponsored support for people with mental diseases is a distant memory in the US. The government here swung back and forth for several decades in the middle 20th century, never really committing due to our two-party system, and in 1981 President Reagan closed all federal mental hospitals and ended virtually all federal support. Many former patients ended up homeless, and 40 years later (I’m writing in 2021), we still haven’t done much.
In England, things were different. Thatcher was bad, no question, but she was no Reagan, and with the three-party system there, the social safety net struggled along for decades. One of the undercurrents of Big Brother tracks the diminishing and diminished care system and transfer of responsibility from community care to the police. Justin Quail has run-ins with police over and over again, following nuisance complaints from neighbors and drunken calls from Jackie, but it’s England, and not the US, so the police are fairly gentle, do what they can to help, and the court system is as sympathetic as it can be.
I can only imagine what would go on here.
Justin is quite handsome; he and Jackie make an attractive couple. It’s sad when their relationship winds down, and it’s this narrative thread that really drives home the issue, for me, anyway. Justin is just trying to live, just trying to get by day to day, to live and love and be part of things; his mental disease just won’t let him. As Louis puts it, Justin “never fully developed beyond his early teens. He lacks the capacity to properly understand social boundaries or the true nature of the law; especially when he is ill.”* I sorta sympathize. As a white male, born and raised in Texas, living in a neighborhood composed almost entirely of first- and second-generation immigrants, I struggle to identify and respond to south-Asian social cues and don’t quite fit in. But my relative outsider status here, my relative depression, is nothing compared to the struggles people with schizophrenia and other serious mental disease.
The book mixes Louis’ photographs and text with Justin’s drawings and poetry, excepts from his bird-watching journals, and some medical and legal documents. An additional sort of drawing/poetry zine is loosely glued into the rear cover. (Mine came unstuck.) It all works together quite well, and is a good and worthwhile portrait of a complex person facing complex issues.
In my first few trips through Big Brother, I got the idea that maybe the edit needed some tightening up: there are quite a few pictures that look essentially identical and could probably be pared down some. But in thinking about it further, I think it’s right as is. There is a sort of same-ness to Justin’s life, a sort of tick/tock, Sisyphean see saw to it all, and the photography reinforces this; the sort of hyperactive switching between text, photographs, and drawings maybe reflect the ways Justin’s mind sometimes whirls and jumps. Really, it works well.
Overall, I rate Big Brother 3.6 stars.
At time of writing, copies remain available direct from Dewi Lewis and probably other fine retailers. Louis Quail’s other projects include work focused on office jobs, people that live along a major highway, soldiers and seemingly average citizens of Lybia, Haiti, Kosovo, and Kabul, following wars and natural disasters, and his website is worth a visit.
*Quail, Louis. Big Brother. Dewi Lewis, Stockport, England. p. 186.