“All I knew was what my mom was telling me. I really thought we were in danger and that people were trying to get her or kill us.”
St. Louis, Missouri native Melissa Spitz was only six when her mother Deborah was institutionalised for psychotic paranoia – a personal battle the now 26-year-old, New York-based photographer would come to understand, and share, through a camera. With her work recently featured at a gallery show in Los Angeles called #MyStory – an initiative by Instagram to celebrate powerful female voices who are quashing stereotypes and clichés through storytelling. We ventured behind the lens to hear Melissa’s tale.
Where did your passion for photography stem from?
I was introduced to photography through my paternal grandfather who had a darkroom in his basement. My paternal grandmother, his wife, was a holocaust survivor so we would often go through old photos together from her life in Vienna. I think watching my grandfather process film in the basement in conjunction with my grandmother’s memories towards her lost life and family is what really sparked my passion. I’ve always been very interested in all family photographs and the history of photographing loved ones.
Why did you decide to start documenting Deborah’s journey, and how did she respond?
I started to document a few years after my parents divorced. It all started through an open-ended photography assignment during my undergraduate studies. Life at home had gotten very extreme at that point and taking the camera home was a way for me to be detached from the reality in front of me. My mom has always loved being in front of the camera, regardless of her state of sobriety. Now she encourages me to shoot her as much as possible.
What moments with your mother get you reaching for the camera?
In the past few years, it’s her requesting I take a photo… even if I don’t want to. For instance, she had an open wound from a surgery and I did not want to photograph it. I made the picture because my mom demanded that I photograph her gaping wound as a nurse came over and cleaned it… even the nurse laughed uncomfortably as I put my camera on auto and leaned over her. I always ask, “Can I take your picture like this,” but she normally is directing me before I can say that.
What made you want to share your mother’s journey with the world through your Instagram account, @nothing_to_worry_about?
I had been photographing my mom as an artist for five years and was done with my studies. I was searching for a way to make the project more public. I wanted a way to share images that were made with my cell phone or potential video clips, not just images that were considered ‘fine art’. The name comes from the title of the body of work, which is “You Have Nothing to Worry About”.
What’s the significance of this name?
My brother and I both lived at home for a year as adults and would leave notes around the house to try to cheer our mom up. They would say things like “Good morning to the world’s greatest mum”, “Today will be a good day” and one from my brother “To do: be fucing happy, reminder: you have nothing to worry about.” My brother thinks the word f**k looks less harsh spelled ‘fuc’… the image became a natural title to the project. It’s a significant phrase for my mother, and for anyone suffering from mental illness or individuals affected by it. With mental illness being such a hush-hush issue, having nothing to worry about when discussing it seemed appropriate.
Why do you use a mosaic effect when sharing your photographs?
I wanted to bring something different to the platform when I decided to start using Instagram… I realised very quickly that this was also beyond metaphoric for trying to understand mental illness. If you look at the account, or mental health the way you are ‘suppose to’ it doesn’t make sense and is skewed. However if you view the bigger picture, in grid mode, the story makes sense. I think that it is important with all issues regarding mental health – to be aware of the history, bigger picture or the backstory.
How did you get involved with the #MyStory exhibition, and what did you take away from it?
Instagram contacted me, which was fantastic! I am always happy to share and contribute my work especially for a cause I believe in, so it was an honour to be included. The best thing I took away would have to be the relationships I formed meeting some of my Instagram colleagues in person. And as always, hearing how my work inspires others to talk about issues that would potentially be considered taboo. The work in most cases seems to ‘level the playing field’ and allow everyone to feel comfortable discussing mental health or addiction.
What do you hope others will take away from your work?
A different idea of what mental illness looks like and whom it can happen to. I think all too often we associate mental health issues with negative connotations. I often hear “How are you so normal?” when I present my work, as if having someone like this for a mother means I can’t function properly. My biggest hope is to start providing more support and awareness for the family members of loved ones with mental illness. Additionally, I hope viewers of the project can be more empathetic towards others with these issues themselves or in their families.