Dissecting The Work Of David Nebreda, The Photographer Isolated By His Schizophrenia

David Nebreda decided to isolate himself to capture the darkest side of his mind through his photographs.

“Photography is our exorcism. Primitive society had its masks, bourgeois society its mirrors. We have our images”

Jean Baudrillard


There are some cultures where it's not allowed to take pictures of people. The reasons vary depending on the culture, but they all share a sense of unease about this medium. Photography has the magical ability to freeze an ephemeral second and turn it into an image for eternity, something that no other medium is able to achieve. But there's another reason behind the superstitions about photography, and it's that this ability to preserve a moment also provides the opportunity to turn the deepest secrets of the mind and the heart into real images that can live forever. And by pouring them onto an image, we might also be pouring those ghosts and emotions that haunt us.


Those were the thoughts that came to my mind when I first saw the raw and symbolic honesty of David Nebreda’s photography. Most of them are self-portraits, and each image exudes the vulnerability, pain, and the embrace of the darkest sides of the artist’s mind. While each of these photographs stands by itself as a window into Nebreda’s emotions, once we add the context in which he creates his pieces, we can’t help but see them as the exorcism of the demons that haunt him and as a way to set himself free from his self-imposed exile.

David Nebreda was born in Madrid, Spain, in 1952. When he was 19 years old, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which made him decide to seclude himself in a two-room apartment, without any contact with the world outside, not even a radio, a TV, or newspapers. Just him and his camera. Along with this isolation, Nebreda decided not to treat his condition, to become vegetarian, deprive himself from sex, and sometimes submit himself to harsh fasts that have left him in a particularly emaciated state. By doing so, he can meet with an uncanny familiarity, or even friendliness, the nightmarish visions that come in the worst moments of schizophrenia. He has stated that his reality is worse than the one depicted in his photography. And yet, he doesn’t seem to be afraid of it or search for a way to escape from it. Instead, by capturing the torment of those moments through the use of chiaroscuros and his own body –including his own blood–, he embraces those specters and pours them out of himself in the eternity of each photograph.


In popular culture, the psychotic episodes of schizophrenia are often shown as colorful parades of surreal hallucinations and terrifying voices. Nonetheless, in Nebreda’s photographs we find the complete opposite. His images are somber, extremely visceral, and earthly. They show how the ghosts of the mind exert their spells on the body as well. Moreover, they also depict the world of the unconscious as an accessible realm made of flesh and bone, tears and blood, and light and darkness, terrifying yet possessing an unknown form of beauty. 


Despite his seclusion, Nebreda’s work made him famous in France when it was exhibited at a gallery in Paris made by Renos Xippas. In one of those exhibits, critic Léo Scheer became fascinated with his work and started showing it, helping him gain worldwide fame. Nonetheless, fame doesn’t really matter to Nebreda. He doesn’t take his photographs for an audience, but for himself. Each photograph is an example of a cathartic moment, an intimate descent into the hell of his mind. That’s how he manages to put his soul in his works and, little by little, let go of the ghosts, capturing them in an image, and letting them go. But as intimate as his works are, they keep touching audiences from all over the world for the way they depict pain. As personal as this emotion can be for him, we have all experienced it, so we can connect with its bare presence in those photographs. And more importantly, the greatest quality of his work is that he shows that being familiar with the disease is one of the best ways to learn to live with it.


Here are other photographers you might find interesting:

 Infamous Photographer Captures Beauty In A Morgue

 7 Photographers That Made Despair And Sadness Their Greatest Muses

8 Photographers Who Made A Business Out Of Death And Morbid Curiosity