For six years, 26-year-old artist Melissa Spitz has been using photography as a cathartic way of understanding life with a mentally ill parent.
The project, called “You Have Nothing to Worry About”, has taken many forms, but she’s most recently been sharing photos of her mother on Instagram using a unique mosaic technique that uses several individual posts to form each photo.
“It comes from a fine art background, but here it straddles the line of a documentary story and a piece of fine art,” Ms. Spitz said.
Last night, her work was featured as part of a gallery show in Los Angeles called #MyStory, an initiative by Instagram to highlight powerful female voices on the platform and allow others to meet some of the women who are upending stereotypes and shattering clichés through storytelling.
In an interview with the Observer, Ms. Spitz detailed her project, a bit about her mother Deborah and the #MyStory gallery show.
What inspired you to start this Instagram project?
I had been photographing my mother for the past 5 years when I started the Instagram. I was trying to bring a digital component to the work and was debating between a Tumblr, a traditional blog or something else. I had always been an Instagram user, and I knew it would give me an opportunity to show more of the pictures and reach more people.
Tell me about your mother.
Her name is Deborah Adams. She’s 61 and lives in St. Louis by herself and works at Home Depot. She bathes, has friends, goes to church and lives a normal life on paper, but when it comes to finances and taxes, that’s where my brother and I pick up the slack. She is relatively self-sufficient.
One photo on your Instagram is from 1994 and is captioned ‘The last time dad remembers mom being ‘normal.” Is that you in the photo? Would you mind sharing what mental illness(es) she has?
It is me, and I was six years old in that photo. Soon after it was taken, my father was away and my mom was institutionalized by the state for psychotic paranoia because she kept calling 911. My brother and I were there but were too young to understand, and I literally thought people were coming to get us because my mom told me that. She was going through a breakdown in front of me. I agree it was the last time she was normal. We all see it that way. From that point on, it’s always about how can we support mom.
That’s part of the issue I want to tackle with this. She’s been diagnosed over and over again. It’s been bipolar (manic depression), schizophrenia, depression, dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder), and I think it speaks volumes to dealing with mental illness. She knows what she’s doing and can go to different doctors and get a different diagnosis. Like, she was watching United States of Tara, went to a doctor and then got a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder from a doctor. I wanted to run in there and yell at him, ‘SHE WAS WATCHING UNITED STATES OF TARA.’
How is it working with your mother to capture the photos? Does she enjoy it or see any benefits?
At first it was really hard and we didn’t have a great relationship. She didn’t look at the photos as something I did. When I was in school earning my fine arts degree, I’d show her and there’d be a huge fight, but now they’ve changed her mind about herself. She can see things she didn’t realize about herself like burning holes in the sheets and spilling wine. I let her call the shots a lot now. It’s very collaborative. I’ll come home and she’ll have an idea of a way she wants me to take her photo.
Are they posed or more candid?
It’s a combination. I try to do things candid but she likes to make it theatrical. She’ll say, ‘let’s take one of me having a panic attack,’ and I’m not sure if I want to be around for that but she’ll lay on the floor and scream. And she’s acting but you can see the realness coming out. It’s accurate, and everything is rooted in factual times and a situation that actually happened.
The mosaic effect you’re using brings something really unique to photos. Why did you decide to go that route?
I knew the account would function that way, and I do it specifically for Instagram. I feel every medium should have its own look, so I didn’t want this to look like my photography. I realized that when you scroll through my account in this linear way—the way you’re supposed to—it makes no sense, and I feel it’s metaphorical for mental illness. And because you can’t zoom on Instagram, with this you can click and view each photo, dissect it and understand it better. I keep going back to the picture of her in the room with the dolls. When you zoom in, you see Barbie dolls and think, ‘why does a 60-year-old woman have Barbie dolls in her room?’
How did you get involved with the #MyStory initiative?
I was contacted by Instagram. I’m not really sure how they found me, but my work has been floating around in the photo world, and I was on Time’s list of 50 Instagrammers to follow. I also got involved with a charity called 1in20, and I think I’ve just been floating around with people relevant in the Instagram world.
How was the gallery and how did attendees react to your work?
It was great and I saw a really really strong reaction from people. It was great to meet other artists. There were mothers there supporting their daughters and I’m a daughter photographing my mother, which was interesting. People said they knew someone like this and, in general, people feel comfortable telling me personal things that have happened to them after seeing my work. There was a lot of that last night.
What were some of the other projects displayed at the gallery?
One that hit home for me the most was the woman who did the natural birth project (empowered birth project). A lot of my work comes from fearing being a mother, and I look at my childhood and think ‘how can I do that?’ And to look at her and see the inspiration coming from the birth of her third son, it was interesting. And between our projects, there was this dichotomy of celebrating motherhood and the difficult parts. And we were right across from each other.
Is there anything else happening with #MyStory?
I would love to keep working with them and contribute work. I plan on continuing to use the hashtag on my feed, but there’s nothing planned yet.
Although there are no more events planned, Instagram will continue the #MyStory campaign on the platform by highlight new accounts that fit with its mission.