‘This Is How I Feel’: The Photographer Documenting Her Bipolar Mother
Brooklyn photographer Melissa Spitz has spent years documenting her bipolar mom for a project called "You Have Nothing to Worry About." The resulting images are a shocking, honest, and intimate portrait of a mother-daughter relationship.
"Mom in Florida, 2016." All photos by Melissa Spitz
"Everyone says their mom's crazy. And I remember being like, 'No. My mom is crazy.'" Melissa Spitz knows more than most. The Missouri-born, Brooklyn-residing photographer is the artist behind You Have Nothing to Worry About, a Instagram account and complex, wide-spanning project documenting her mentally ill, substance-abusing mother.
Photography was second nature to Melissa. "I've been photographing my whole life. My grandpa introduced me to photography when I was a kid." When her parents divorced, photography became a coping mechanism. "All of the 'keeping things perfect and quiet' [stuff] was now stripped away. It was just easier for me to take the camera home and do this than to be dealing with what was going on. I was so angry then."
Melissa's unnamed mother is blonde and birdlike, but the photos of her smoking, sitting, scratching are more than pure document. "There's a photo I made of my mom screaming on a bench... She had this pain in her voice and... I was like, This is how I feel. All of a sudden, it was like this echo. Not only is this me documenting my mom, but it's me using her metaphorically as what's going on in my life and vice versa." Melissa thinks of the ensuing photographs—powerful, unexpected, sometimes wry, as a conversation between the two. Their photographic relationship is fractious, fragmented. It's often dark; a reflection of the splintering that happens when mental illness cuts through the self. One can see the broken mirror reflected jaggedly back at them.
Read more: Living With My Mom's Mental Illness
"I think at first I thought mental illness was wishy-washy," Spitz says of her bipolar mother, who has cycled through several diagnoses. "Now though, I do think she's very, very, very sick and I think of mental health completely differently. I think there needs to be a lot more support and funding for family members and children, the circle it surrounds."
But if you're looking for a twee tale of redemption and victimhood, Spitz's work is not here for that. "Sometimes I feel like the work gets very sugarcoated, because she is not a victim. She likes to be photographed and she likes to do these woe-is-me things and I think that's why she loves doing the project, because she gets to be on this stage. There is so much power in that."
"Someone commented on one of my photos, 'She raised such a good daughter,' and I wanted to write back, 'She didn't raise anybody,'" Spitz says. "Like I said, I feel like the work has been sugarcoated."
The common question is one of consent and bordering-on-patronizing concern—does photography help Spitz's mother? Has a duty of care been breached in some way? Spitz strongly refutes this claim. "It makes my mom feel so important and validated as a human, that this project is out there. There's times when I'm very happy that I'm doing it and there's times where she'll take advantage of me... It definitely goes back and forth, but I'm happy that I've included myself and that I'm starting trying to include my story a lot more."
"The work has been called exploitative and people have said that I'm putting her out there in a bad light. If there's anything I feel like I'm taking advantage of, it's the classic—if you're handed lemons, make lemonade."
"Actually, I'm going to take that back. I do not really feel like I take advantage of her, ever. For instance, there's an image of her holding her hospital gown up. She was like, 'Take this picture of me and my wound!' and I was like, 'Mom, no, I don't want to take a picture of your vagina!' and she was like 'You have to!' She really dictates a lot. It's almost like I'm a fly on the wall sometimes."
There's a lack of resolution in this narrative, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Those with mental illnesses are painted very often as loveable eccentric rogues or vehicles for another person's salvation. The reality involves institutions, drug regimes, self-destructive behaviour. Many mental illnesses have no natural end. For Spitz, the project won't finish for years. "For a while, the project was called Til She's Dead. But that was a little too morbid," she says. Spitz has been shooting with her mother since 2009 and plans to continue on as long as they both can, with the end result of a decade-spanning exhibition or book.
Instagram became a natural vehicle for her work for more reasons than just shareability. One has to view her account away from a feed to see the fragmented pictures slot together. Spitz explains, " was instantly a metaphor for looking at an understanding mental illness, because if you look at my [account] the way you're supposed to, it kinda makes sense. But then things get jumbled up. You see weird corners and things that are blurry. Like mental health, you need to step back and view the bigger picture. You have to do it from the outside, from the grid, for it to make sense."
"Once I do get an exhibition in line, I'm not sure if the images will be full or if they'll be cut up into grids. Those white lines across the images are starting to do something for me when I look at them."
On the grid or off, Melissa Spitz's work stands on its own.