My Breakthrough Moment: Photojournalist Alex Majoli

At 22, Alex Majoli embarked on his first photobook, Leros, shot in a notorious insane asylum. As Mack Books publishes his new book Scene, he reflects on the photographs that made him

My first photobook was called Leros. Leros means dirty. It was a series about the closing of an insane asylum on the Greek island. The inmates came to this island from all over Greece. They were chosen from among the worst cases, the ones they’d given up on in the psychiatric hospitals.

I knew that they were housed in an ex-military base on the island, which had previously been used as a jail for political prisoners. I knew that Leros’ story was associated with its psychiatric hospital and that the world knew nothing about it. I knew that inside the asylum you didn’t live, you survived.

Everything [in the asylum] was connected to the theories of an Italian psychiatrist called Franco Basaglia, a pioneer of the modern concept of mental health, who abolished the psychiatric hospitals in Italy. In Italy, he’s a very important figure. I graduated from art school in 1991 and I worked a lot in Italy with the assistant of Basaglia … I had the occasion to visit Leros with him.

I ended spending four or five years in that institution. I came to know what I was facing and doing there. It felt like Heart of Darkness – when the captain charts his way up the river.

From the series Leros © Alex Majoli, courtesy Trolley Books/Magnum