The Fragility and Suffering of the Human Mind


The year was 1948, when Hugh Welch Diamond, a psychiatrist, saw the potential of photography for medical diagnosis. A superintendent of the women’s ward in the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum, in the U.K., Diamond was the first to use the medium to study the physiognomy of mental illness—the idea that one’s face reveals their mental state. Since he believed that photography is linked to empirical truth, he used it to identify visual signs of the disease. It also helped patients to recognise themselves during their recovery and identify them in the case of readmittance.

While many have admired Diamond’s effort to raise awareness about mental health, especially among economically disadvantaged groups, he was criticised for his techniques. Diamond, who used calotype and glass plate collodions, would ask his subjects to pose, sometimes with props, to portray their illness. Although manipulated, the images were crucial to John Conolly’s 1858 case studies on The Physiognomy of Insanity, which advocated for non-restraint and moral treatment of patients. Later, his photographs also influenced the psychiatric community, including Dr. G.B. Duchenne, Jean-Martin Charcot and Sir Francis Galton. Between 1859 to 1869, he served as the Editor of the Photographic Society’s journal, and later, as secretary and vice president of the organisation. In 1867, he was awarded the medal of excellence from the Photographic Society. In 2014, Sander L Gilman, a cultural and literary historian published his portraits in The Face of Madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the Origin of Psychiatric Photography, epitomising the fragility of the human psyche and its suffering.