A few miles from the hipster sprawl of modern Brooklyn is the 200-year-old Kings County Hospital, in East Flatbush, home to the psych facility the late rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard memorialized in "Brooklyn Zoo" ("In the G Building takin' all types of medicine"). The gothic, infamous "G" was closed in 2009, and Kings County's Behavioral Health Center, where I volunteer as a resident artist, now inhabits the airy new R Building, heralding a reset for the public institution. After years of neglect and the much-publicized 2008 death of Jamaican immigrant Esmin Green, who was found convulsing on the floor of the waiting room, CNN referred to the hospital as a "symbol of a health-care system that seems to have failed horribly." The tragedy, though, spurred a sea change in patient care that resulted in the U.S. Department of Justice, after years of oversight, recently calling Kings County a "model acute care psychiatric facility."
I can attest to what is happening there. The mere existence of my position — artist-in-residence — speaks to the hospital's attempt to move toward transparency and creativity while serving one of the poorest, most ethnically diverse, and most trauma-affected populations in New York City. I work as a shrink elsewhere, but at Kings my work is not clinical; my photographic work is about hearing and telling the stories of the remarkable patients who have opened up to me, about humanizing them and trying to capture the complexity and contradictions of their lives, which a DSM diagnosis can never really do.
I met Nathaniel, the subject of these pictures, in February, after he was briefly hospitalized for acute depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation. If you had met him at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe or at Lane Bryant, where he was on track to be a visuals manager, you would never have guessed what this creative, stylish, witty, and driven 21-year-old had already lived through.
We connected while I was embedded in the Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), a six-week day program that seeks to provide a transition from inpatient to outside life. And I've gotten to know a number of young adults in PHP who find themselves not just between intake and discharge but between whatever trauma or chemical imbalance landed them there and the utterly normal post-adolescent striving to define who they are, what they're into, and what they aspire to become. Nathaniel was one of the patients who invited me into their lives. I've photographed him and others in their homes and with their families. I've also shot them at shelters they once lived in, while recording music, and on the streets where they grew up. For some of these kids, the arc seems daunting — recurring hospitalizations, worsening symptoms, the side effects of medication, hearing voices, family or societal nightmares. For others, transformation seems possible. Their promise has only been interrupted. It could be realized, if their condition is, in a word, tweaked.