To live with mental illness in China is to live in an invisible world.
Of the more than 100 million victims living with some form of mental illness in China, 16 percent are classified as severe, according to a 2009 report by China’s National Center for Mental Health. Yet, inadequate psychiatric care and social stigmas have pushed many out of the public sphere, denying family members the much-needed support they need.
This year’s Ian Parry scholarship recipient, 23-year-old Chinese photographer Yuyang Liu, has set about illuminating this invisible world. He recently documented families crippled by mental disease across the southern province of Guangdong, one of China’s wealthiest regions. “It is often the case that one family is impoverished because of a family member’s illness,” Liu tells TIME.
The project, At Home With Mental Illness, which aims to highlight the inefficient government efforts, won him his scholarship.
Liu first became aware of the issue when he received a newsletter from a Chronicle Disease Prevention Center in a small town, which mentioned its effort in helping those struggling with mental health issues and their families. “I was blown away,” Liu says. “[I realized] that although the patients are largely invisible in the society, they and their families do live a real life.”
With leads provided by local NGOs and online forums, Liu gained access to six houses, photographing the interactions among the mentally ill, their families and the larger society. “I don’t want to photograph how miserable they are even though some of the pictures will inevitably convey that, but I want to focus more on the support between them and their families, and capture the viewers’ attention that way,” Liu says.
Among them, the Xiao family’s situation is especially grim. With a mother suffering from severe mental illness at home, Xiao, a father of two, has to work every morning. Before leaving, he used to tie his five-year-old daughter with a rope attached to a wooden stake so she wouldn’t be able to wander off. When social workers discovered the girl, she did not wear any pants. The father had thought that since no one could untie her to use a bathroom, it would prevent her from wetting her clothes.
Liu immediately partnered with Chinese Internet and technology giant, Tencent, after photographing the Xiao family’s situation, and raised 4,000 RMB ($645) for the child. But he hoped that the fundraising would benefit more than one family and that he would be able to raise awareness for the socially disadvantaged group as a whole, he says. Now with the scholarship’s support of £3,500 ($5,450), Liu plans to expand his coverage to other regions in China.
The scholarship, named after photojournalist Ian Parry, who died while covering the Romanian revolution in 1989, is given every year to an aspiring photographer under 24, the age Parry died. “[The prize] is a great encouragement for me personally,” Liu says. “There’re so many amazing photographers as my predecessors, and I’m really happy to be included in the family.”
Early this year, Liu had contemplated going into commercial photography for a better income, but soon dismissed the idea, and winning the award serves as a major encouragement for him to push through a short period of hesitancy.
“The judges felt this was an outstanding and brave body of simple, honest images,” said the jury in a statement. Along with Liu, Hosam Katan of Syria was highly commended this year. Hashem Shakeri of Iran, Isadora Kosofsky, who was published on TIME LightBox last year, and Salahuddin Ahmed of Bangladesh were also commended. Each of them will receive a cash award of £500 ($780). “Every single portfolio selected for this year’s scholarship has human interest at its heart, and that’s why this award is so special,” said Don McCullin, combat photographer and a trustee on the scholarship’s board.
See Isadora Kosofsky’s winning story below.