Bridgeport photography exhibit examines history of institutionalized children
Katie Settel of Fairfield wants to change history and turn decades of shame and guilt into understanding and healing not just for herself but for thousands of families.
Growing up, she never knew one of her brothers, Andy, born in 1958. It was not until she was 17 that she met him, but now she is close to him and serves as his advocate. He was raised at the Mansfield Training School, which closed in 1993 after six decades of serving patients with mental disorders.
“I have a brother who is intellectually challenged and when he was born, doctors urged my parents to send him to an institution,” Settel explains. “As a kid, I always knew of Andy, but had never met him and was always haunted by that — he was a family member we rarely spoke of. But what I’ve learned when sharing this story is that I’m not the only one with this lost history. There are still a ton of brothers and sisters in group homes that are alone because this secret endures.”
As a photographer, she sought out the opportunity in 2017 to visit and document with her camera the Mansfield school where Andy spent most of his life. At first, she only wanted to make a connection to her brother’s past, this place that had long frightened her. “The reason why I wanted to go there is my brother doesn’t speak and doesn’t see so I wanted to be in his shoes. I’m very close with him now but I know nothing of his history,” she said.
“I went there ready to hate it. I was going to do black and white photos to show people that this is the place where people went to die,” Settel said. “I was just going to show them how horrible it was but there were signs all over that somebody did care, they didn’t just build it as a place to discard [people].”
The images she captured at the abandoned school immediately affected her and changed her outlook on the facility. She saw that people there had made an effort before overcrowding became unsurmountable. One photo in particular shows the moment she stopped hating the place. It’s a photo of curtains she saw that had houses painted on them. The curtains were among many items left behind when the school closed along with drawings, shoes and hangers.
Bringing public awareness to this issue to break the stigma that once kept families with institutionalized children like hers living a life of secrets, Settel is sharing her story and photographs. Images she shot at Mansfield, including the curtains image, are in an exhibition, “(un)Forgotten,” on view Oct. 4-18 at the Armstrong Gallery in Bridgeport. The exhibit is the first step in this project, which she hopes will grow to bring advocacy for those unable to speak for themselves. An opening reception with Settel will be held Friday, Oct. 4, from 6 to 9 p.m.
Focusing on making this a positive story instead of assigning blame, Settel hopes her photographs bring viewers into an emotional space of awareness, understanding and hopefully, healing. “I want to tell my story, show that there is no shame. I want to combine history with today’s acceptance and unite families so that they may become advocates for siblings who cannot speak for themselves,” she said.
There are so many people in institutions today desperate for advocacy and they really need someone, she explained. “Maybe by doing this story, by sharing this truth which hasn’t been spoken about yet that people will start thinking ‘Well, maybe I could reach out.’ And it is scary to reach out, it’s like learning a different language,” she said.
Feedback has already been positive with many people assisting her on this so-far self-funded project and sharing with her their stories of lost siblings. “The more honest I am, the more honest everybody can be.”
A press release she posted on LinkedIn about the exhibition has already gotten over 100,000 views and she wants to see momentum continue to build to gain widespread exposure for this important message.
The Armstrong Gallery is at 305 Knowlton Street. For exhibition information, visit katiesettel.com/unforgotten or call 917-922-8090.