Justin Quail raises his binoculars to his eyes, scanning the trees in search of a sparrow he’s heard trilling in the branches. On the park bench beside him, his girlfriend Jackie smokes a cigarette, while his brother Louis circles them with his camera, making portraits of the two lovebirds out in the park on a clouded London afternoon. Once the sparrow is sighted, Justin adds its name to a notebook filled with bird lists, notes on bird songs, drawings of birds and the odd poem. Justin, now in his 50s, has been obsessively birdwatching since the age of nine. “Why do you think you’ve kept it up?” his brother asks. “…the birds that you see reflect the earth back inside of yourself, they reflect the earth back in you,” Justin replies.
Justin and Jackie have both been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The photographs in Big Brother were made by Justin’s younger sibling Louis, who began documenting Justin’s life shortly after their mother—who was also diagnosed with schizophrenia—passed away. An estimated one in four people will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lifetime, and for Louis the lack of public awareness and support for the mentally ill drove him to begin making the work. “I want Justin to be seen,” he writes, “I want to fight the ignorance and the stigma.”
In Big Brother, Louis Quail defies the reductive stigma surrounding Justin’s illness by creating an intimate portrait of his brother’s everyday experience. “Justin is no saint,” writes Louis, “but there is a lot more to him than his mental illness. It doesn’t define him.” In a series of chapters, each a title from one of Justin’s favorite songs, Louis uses text and image to document the different themes playing out in Justin’s life. In ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, Justin meditates and paints landscapes. In ‘Holiday, It Could Be So Nice’, Justin and Jackie travel to Northern Ireland on vacation. In addition to Louis’ photographic observations, Justin’s voice is present throughout Big Brother: on pages and inserts of drawings, bird lists, and poetry excerpts, sitting alongside the images of him meditating, bird watching, or sharing a moment with Jackie.
Justin instinctively practices his hobbies, especially birdwatching, and for Louis they are the source of his resilience. “It’s hard to quantify the benefits that Justin’s hobby has in helping his illness,” writes Louis, “I see it as absolutely vital in maintaining his mental health and sense of well-being.” However, his condition brings about an oscillation between extreme highs and extreme lows—and Louis does not shy away from depictions of the debilitating depression and paranoia his brother endures. In a number of different sequences throughout the book Justin lays prone on a couch incapacitated by his anti-psychotic drugs, telling Louis, “I can’t do anything after a depo, they make me feel foggy, like wading through mud.”
In a chapter titled ‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won,’ Louis takes the reader through the challenges presented to Justin and Jackie by the lack of social support. Jackie, who has given up on the increasingly overwhelmed social care workers, has a habit of turning to the police whenever a misunderstanding arises between the couple. As a result, a litany of minor offences are attached to Justin’s name such as criminal damage to a cigarette, breach of bail, common assault, assault by battery.
The peaks and troughs of this intimate relationship point to a larger systemic failure. Louis believes that, “what we see are symptoms of a system that appears to be spiralling out of control. Resources that were once pumped into [social services] are now diverted to the Criminal Justice system.” The result is instead of the option to resolve their misunderstandings (and there are many) with the help of trained professionals, Justin and Jackie are now at the mercy of untrained police officers working in an unempathetic judicial system.
In spite of the challenges Justin and Jackie face, their resilience and love continue to bring them together. “At its heart,” writes Louis, “this is a love story.” After a lifetime of being the one supporting Justin, making this work also changed the relationship between brothers. “Justin trusted me with his story,” says Louis, “it was his gift to me; something powerful for a change.” Reflecting on Justin and Jackie’s relationship, Louis writes that, “if by accepting them we can accept ourselves, treat each health condition as is appropriate, and resist the ghettoization of the mentally ill, then we can improve our individual health as well as that of society.”