Olivier Papegnies (Belgium)

Mad about love 

Love, sexuality and mental handicap: three words that together elicit considerable taboos. Our society is used to discuss sexual freedom. Integration is often mentioned. But when it comes to mention sex and handicap, the subject becomes embarrassing and awkward. Able and disabled should have the same rights in theory. They have access to work, leisure, sports. But what about their access to an emotional and sexual life? The question is even more sensitive for mentally handicapped people. How can we understand the needs of someone for whom language is non-existent or extremely restricted; or, let's put it this way, different from ours.

In Belgium this problematic has been taken into account for a while. Some institutions allow mentally handicapped people to live their lives as a couple: take “La Maisonnée” in Ittre which stands up for the rights of its residents to lead an active emotional and sexual life. This battle was not an easy one. Forty years ago the media was indignant about it, writing furiously about “a brothel for the handicapped”.

In November 2011 I met Nathalie and Bernard, Marianne and Olivier, Anne and Pierre. All of them live together as couples in their own private studio at the residence “La Maisonnée”. They agreed, for one year, to open the doors of their daily life and tell me their love story. 

-Nathalie and Bernard have had an intense relationship for seven years. They flirt, kiss, caress, whisper love messages all day long. When Bernard is ill, Nathalie's world collapses.

-Marianne and Olivier have known each other for a long time. They used to share a studio before their relationship became official. They celebrated their "accordailles" (engagement party) on 15 September. Marianne is very happy she met Olivier. He shows respect for her, something she missed a lot in her previous life

-Anne and Pierre are a mysterious couple. Sometimes when Anne is melancholic, she thinks about her mother from whom it was difficult to be separated. Pierre feels the responsibility to make her laugh and so hides in the wardrobe.  He keeps on trying to surprise her. 

Olivier Papegnies was born in 1970 in Belgium and started his career as a photojournalist in 1997. Since then he has been working as a freelance for different magazines, and national newspapers and collaborates with press agencies such as Belga and Reuters.

In 2000 he joined the agency “Taiga” based in Paris. The same year he published a book featuring exiles from Tibet “Tibetans from Lhasa to Dharamsala”

In 2001 he received the Jury’s special award of “festival du scoop” in Angers.

He became a member of Nazca Pictures International Photo Press Agency in Italy in 2004. He travelled for them in more than 40 countries. He has a special feeling for forgotten humans like certain remote tribes. He particularly enjoys working on projects that emphasize noble causes or denounce injustice, in order to produce the right testimony.

In 2006 he was back in Vietnam to tell a story about the victims of Agent Orange, a chemical product sprayed by US Army during the Vietnam War.

In 2007 he undertook a long-term story on the “Special Olympics”, following athletes with intellectual disabilities through their different skills, training and competition.

In 2008 he started to collaborate with the agency Belga and the press group “Rossel” (which includes the national newspaper “le Soir” and “le Soir Magazine”).

In 2009 he travelled to Bhopal in India in order to meet the victims of the nuclear disaster at the Union Carbine Plant that occurred in 1984.

He received the Dexia award for the best Belgian press photo of the year in 2010.

In 2011 he gained the Nikon photo press award (NPPA) for his reportage about the earthquake in Haïti.

In 2012 he received the award “Le prix du Journalisme du Parlement Wallonie-Bruxelles” for “Mad about Love”

In 2013, he became a member of the “Huma” Collective. 

Lately he has dedicated himself to the victims of often forgotten chemical and industrial disasters in the world. He also has some personal work in progress. 

His stories have been published by various magazines such as The Time Magazine, Oggi, Géo, Voyager, Gulliver, L'Intelligent, Paris Match, le Vif l'Express, Le Soir Magazine, De Standard, De Morgen, Le Soir, La Libre Belgique, ...