Katie Settel says she hopes to end the stigma surrounding families who institutionalized children with disabilities
Growing up, photographer Katie Settel knew all about her older brother Andy.
She knew he was at one point a twin, but was the lone survivor. She knew he was intellectually disabled; blind and unable to communicate. And she knew that she’d never had the chance to meet him, as he was living away from her and her four siblings at the Mansfield Training School and Hospital in Connecticut due to his disabilities.
“Back in the ‘50s, the doctors urged the parents to give their kids away,” Settel tells PEOPLE. “They said, you know, you won’t have any kind of life, you have to give them away, don’t look back … It wasn’t at all a dark, bad secret, [but] I was always haunted by having a brother I never met.”
Now, years after Mansfield was shut down, and Andy reunited with his family, Settel, 53, has returned to her brother’s former home, this time with a camera in hand.
With the click of a button, she’s managed to transform the dilapidated facility into a photo exhibition called (un)Forgotten at the Armstrong Gallery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a display Settel hopes can help end the stigma surrounding families that were once fractured like hers.
Settel tells PEOPLE that she and her siblings were well aware of Andy’s existence while growing up, but that they didn’t speak of him often.
She became the first of her brothers and sisters to visit him when she turned 17, dropping by with her mother on a trip she says was difficult.
“The hardest part for me was that he was a mix between my two brothers, Zach and Tony,” she recalls. “And can you imagine, like, your mom and your dad, and then seeing a third person. And it was a lot for a… 17 is not young, but it’s still young to take in all this, especially with the build-up.”
Andy left Mansfield when the facility closed down in 1993 due to overcrowding, abuse, neglect and sanitation issues, and was moved to a smaller home in Connecticut, where he still lives today.
But when Settel recently visited Boston and saw a sign for Mansfield, she says the name “shook [her] soul,” and transported her back to the days when it represented a haunting symbol of her long-lost brother.
With that in mind, Settel had decided her next project: she would revisit the place Andy once called home, and soak up her brother’s history for the first time since she stopped by at 17.
“He can’t tell me anything,” she says. “So I wanted to just be in it out of respect for him, and to just feel it. And I brought my camera ‘cause that’s what I do, that’s how I see things. It goes right through my lens to my heart.”
Settel says she expected the place to feel terrible — and while parts of it were, she found herself moved by curtains hung on the windows that were adorned with decorations of tiny houses, a sign that someone had once cared about the place.
“They had bedrooms. It’s like they just left. You’ll see a slipper or a hanger,” she says. “My favorite picture in the show is a toilet paper roll still full. It’s incredible.”
The photographer says her goal in displaying her photos isn’t to shame the country for letting its citizens live in facilities like Mansfield, but to instead try and “heal some of the past.”
So far, it’s working, and Settel says she’s had multiple people approach her with similar stories of having grown up with siblings they never knew.
“It originally started where I just wanted to give the siblings a break, that it’s not our fault, we’re not bad, this is what we were taught,” she says. “And maybe because nobody talked about this, maybe it would give some people some courage to say, ‘Hey, maybe I can.’ ”
In addition to helping the siblings, Settel also says she hopes that in taking her story public, it will inspire others to step up and give a voice to the voiceless, like Andy.
“I don’t feel guilt for what happened, because I understand, but I’m really saddened by it,” she says. “And I’ve watched people lose places in their health because they don’t have somebody like me to step behind them and say, ‘No, that’s not OK.’”
(un)Forgotten, which is made up of approximately 30 photos, opened on Oct. 4, and will run through Oct. 18 at the Armstrong Gallery.
“I’m no longer afraid of this,” she says. “It’s no longer controlling me by shame and guilt. We switched seats.”