A few years ago I visited the abandoned Forest Haven Asylum in Maryland. It was my first urban exploration (urbex) adventure. I knew nothing about the place except that it had been closed down since 1991 and was a popular urbex spot. I had been invited by some fellow photographers that were experienced in urban exploration and had previously visited the asylum. What I saw and experienced during that first trip was overwhelming.
The Forest Haven complex consists of many buildings, including a maternity ward, cottages for housing the “patients”, a laundry, power plant, a small church, a hospital, administration buildings, playgrounds, and, most disturbing of all a high security building for the more “challenging” patients. The facility is spread out over a large area and each building was littered with medical equipment and the personal belongings of those that lived and worked there. Most of the photographs I took during that first visit were intended to give a sense of space and included expansive shots of the buildings and internal shots of long, sweeping corridors.
Just as we were getting ready to pack up I found a pile of papers on the floor that had been unceremoniously dumped out of a nearby filing cabinet. The papers turned out to be medical records and I started thumbing through them. The stories they told were horrifying and my heart sank deeper the more I read. Each patient had their own special needs but it was apparent that the staff were not able to cater to all needs. Consequently, patients were frequently locked in their rooms, secured to their beds or sedated. Patients fought with other patients and horrific injuries often went unnoticed for long periods of time. The more I read the more disturbed I became. But the real tipping point were the stories of the children, many of whom had been sent to Forest Haven as babies and spent their lives confined to this small part of the world.
I started researching Forest Haven after that first visit and it was hardly surprising to learn that the facility had been closed down by court order after the facility failed to meet required standards of care. Class action law suits followed, some of which are still ongoing 20 years after the final patients left. But the stories of abuse and suffering, especially amongst the children that stuck with me. I tried working on the photographs that I had taken, but there wasn’t a single shot that I reflected how I felt.
I photographed Forest Haven several times over the next few weeks and the resulting images are intended to tell a story of the isolation, desperation and simple horror of the place. For example, the image of the cracked eyeglass is intended to symbolize the cracks in so called society that somehow allowed such horrors to occur and exist.