Alienation from nature and the loss of the experience of being part of the living creation is the greatest tragedy of our materialistic era. It is the causative reason for ecological devastation and climate change. Therefore, I attribute the absolute highest importance to consciousness change. I regard psychedelics as catalyzers for this. They are tools which are guiding our perception toward other, deeper, areas of human existence, so that we, again, become aware of our spiritual essence.
Albert Hoffmann – LSD and the Divine Scientist: The Final Thoughts and Reflections of Albert Hofmann
Discussions about ‘recreational’ drugs tend to be polarised between those who see them as a symbol of dangerous hedonism, or the fuel of criminal economies, and those on the other hand who feel they ought to have the freedom to make their own choices about what substances they ingest, or who value the benefits of these substances beyond sheer pleasure.
One of these books is a literal journey to try to save a mind which is destroying itself, and the other is a psychological journey that takes us deeper into a mind than most would ever want to go.
Mother’s Therapy and Transcendent Country of the Mind are two photo books which touch on different facets of these debates, while also reflecting the fact that these two poles are not mutually exclusive. One of these books is a literal journey to try to save a mind which is destroying itself, and the other is a psychological journey that takes us deeper into a mind than most would ever want to go.
Mathias de Lattre’s Mother’s Therapy emerged from his own mother’s struggles with bipolar disorder (previously known as manic depression), a still poorly understood and treated condition, despite the fact that a not insignificant number of people will experience it at some point in their lives. After his mother had undertaken a long series of unsuccessful treatments with conventional drugs, de Lattre began to explore the possibility of alternative treatments using natural hallucinogens to alleviate her symptoms.
This book documents that exploration, and in many ways it feels closer to a work of advocacy than an artistically inclined photobook – indeed I suspect we’d only use the latter term to describe Mother’s Therapy because de Lattre is professionally a photographer. While the imagery in the book is entirely competent and interesting, it is the extensive texts in the book that really draw you in, initially to his mother’s world, through a vivid first hand account of one of her depressive episodes, and later through the accounts of a variety of experts, ranging from conventional medics to traditional healers.
de Lattre leads us on a journey through thousands of years of entwined history and medicine, from theories about early beliefs and culture and their inter-relationship with some of the hundreds of naturally growing hallucinogenic plants, through to contemporary medical efforts to better understand the potential benefits of these substances, and the tension between this and the strict regulation of hallucinogens in many countries. Ultimately Mother’s Therapy ends with a degree of personal hope, with his mother’s condition seemingly improved at the book’s close by small doses of psilocybin, the compound found in ‘magic’ psilocybe mushrooms.
Sari Soininen’s Transcendent Country of the Mind comes again from a first-hand experience of hallucinogenic experimentation, but of a kind radically different to that in de Lattre’s book. In her early twenties Soininen experienced an extended psychotic episode as a result of extensive use of LSD. As Soininen writes, ‘during this time, I abandoned all my worldly possessions; I confronted the demons of Hell and was shown the wonders of Heaven; I travelled through time and space; I peeked behind the curtain of this dimension and – even today, having fully recovered – my understanding of reality has changed forever.’
Transcendent Country of the Mind is far more obviously a ‘photobook’, dominated by photographs, and visually these images are nearly the exact opposite of the calm, almost scientifically detached photographs of de Lattre’s book. Soininen’s photographs capture vivid, hyper real colours, impossibly complex and detailed structures, ordinary objects imbued with a sense of extraordinary significance, and a feeling of the absolute connectedness of all things in the world. For anyone who has themselves used hallucinogens, these images will resonate strikingly with the experience. The book does an impressive job of communicating part of what it is that makes these substances so attractive, the type of heightened awareness that makes the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.
The medley of factors that feed into our perception of hallucinogenic drugs are as murky as the long history we share with them, and as complex as the visions they induce.
Whereas de Lattre’s book makes extensive use of text, Soininen’s is a reminder that sometimes a series of incredibly strong images are all you need to make your point. There is a text embedded in the middle of the book, a first person account of her psychosis, and this feels important to ground the book and prevent it from being seen as a pure celebration of the extended consciousness and perception that LSD can bring. Transcendent Country of the Mind is an inescapably cautionary tale.
Like any drug, hallucinogens have the potential to be dangerous, but the irony of their widespread criminalisation is that this makes misuse more, rather than less likely. Albert Hoffman, who first synthesised and then accidentally ingested LSD, made the point forcefully, that by criminalising their use, even in clinical settings, we deny ourselves the considerable potential benefits, while aggravating the potential harms. But as the two books indicate, the issues involved are far greater than simple measures of harm (because after all, if we legislated drug use solely on this basis, we would have long ago outlawed alcohol, which by most measures causes greater harm than heroin). The medley of factors that feed into our perception of hallucinogenic drugs are as murky as the long history we share with them, and as complex as the visions they induce.