I started out photographing the people around me, colleagues, friends. Soon after, I found myself in the offices of more notable practitioners. My project moved forward almost exclusively by word of mouth. When I had photographed someone, they might say, "You should photograph this or that person, they have an interesting face, they have an amazing office!" On the other hand, if I made a "cold call" and tried to explain my project to a stranger on the phone, it almost never worked. Finally, after I had photographed a few luminaries, it was a bit easier to find new participants as they felt honored to be in a book alongside a highly respected person in the field.
New York has the reputation of being the world capital of shrinks. Do people have more problems here than in other places? Or is it just the fact that there are so many people living here who simply have enough money to be able to afford the services of a shrink?
It is true that New York City remains the major bastion of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy today, perhaps with the exception of Buenos Aires, where – as I'm told –, even most of the taxi drivers are in analysis! That does not mean that the people who live in New York City have more problems than elsewhere. Sure, it is a fast-paced metropolis. We are living in a highly pressured environment and many folks are struggling to survive economically. But that is no different from London, Paris or New Dehli.
I think that, in New York, admitting that you are in therapy or even on medication for a mental health problem is much easier than in other parts of the world. When you ask a friend in New York, "Where are you heading now? and he or she says, "I''m on my way to see my shrink," that is an acceptable answer. I believe that the mental health stigma has been significantly worn down over here. When I go to parties and meet new people, it has happened that they tell me what medications they are taking for their depression or anxiety and they ask me for my opinion. There is very little shame about revealing this, and I think that is how it should be.
And what have you learned about psychiatrists' workspaces while working on the book?
The psychotherapeutic office is a unique space. It serves a very specific purpose: two individuals, who initially are total strangers, meet in this special room at regular, appointed times. One of them reveals his or her life story, his ongoing troubles while the other listens, tries to create meaning and attempts to intervene in a helpful way.
The places I have visited have been incredibly diverse in their decoration and their "feel." Some offices were filled with artifacts – think Freuds original office in Berggasse – books, antique furniture, ottomans, persian rugs, masks on the wall, various greenery, orchids, soothing landscape painting, etc. I have met therapists who proudly displayed their art collections or personal items they brought back from their travels. The overall idea is for the patients to feel relaxed but also engaged and stimulated by an environment that invites them to let go of their defenses, let their mind wander and to free associate. Needless to say, the couch is almost always there, even though, few patients lie down these days.