One of the greatest ethical conundrums for artists and writers and anyone whose job it is to tell stories of human experience, is learning how to tell the stories of others. How do we navigate that with sensitivity? And what right do we have to conjure ourselves into another’s situation for our art? This is further complicated when mental health or addiction or illness is factored into someone’s lived experience. But what if that someone is a parent?
American photographer Melissa Spitz has been making photographs of her mother, Deborah, for almost 10 years in a project called You Have Nothing To Worry About. Deborah suffers with substance abuse and mental illness; Spitz was 7 years old the first time she visited her in an institution. "I always knew Mum was afraid of things," she says. "She had a nervous energy about her constantly, but she was fun and loving when I was really young. When she was first institutionalised, it was a confusing and scary experience. Mental health was not something people regularly talked about in the early '90s and I remember being left with a lot of unanswered questions and paranoia."
In the autumn of 2009, at the age of 20, Spitz was studying photography at college. Her professor gave her an open-ended assignment to photograph something 'private' and for the first time, she took her camera home to her mother. "Our first year of shooting, Mum was drunk a lot. I worried that she didn’t even realise we were photographing or that she wouldn’t remember," she recounts. "The first time I showed her a portfolio of the images she was angry and demanded I leave her house. She later admitted that the images had scared her, like looking in a mirror, and it contributed to her seeking help for alcohol abuse."
Attempting to characterise her mother’s illnesses is complex, Spitz says. "She is very sick, mentally and physically, but in the past few years I have worked really hard to get away from calling her 'bipolar' which is her technical diagnosis. I believe that giving my mum a label does more harm than good." Her mother is a hypochondriac, she says, and recounts stories of her asking Spitz to print off WebMD articles describing diseases she thought she had, only to be diagnosed with them the following week. "She loves attention and playing the victim, which is why I think she enjoys being photographed so much," she muses.
You Have Nothing To Worry About gathers together a mass of visual material, including still photographs, images Spitz’s mother has created, archival pictures, notes, letters, Post-its and other paraphernalia. Spitz sees the project as a collaboration between the two of them, and says that her mother often has "grand ideas for how she wants to be shot, styled and what music she wants to be playing." The resulting portraits are playful and searching, often appearing to oscillate between candid and choreographed. In some images her mother is dressed up in glamorous outfits with red lips and styled hair, and in others she brings in props – masks, guns, leaves thrown in the air – that help her embody a multitude of characters. The space of the photograph creates a stage for her mother to perform infinite versions of herself. "A lot of times her performances, although they are about herself and her own pain, echo my feelings about our relationship too, and that’s when the conversation really begins. A great example of this is the time my mum came downstairs with a bloody face and bruised jaw. Seeing her like that, I felt bruised and broken inside."
My mum has a master’s degree in special education and was once brilliant. Now I find post-its where she can’t remember how to spell 'beautiful'. At times, her handwriting can be more telling of her mental state than anything else.
Sometimes Spitz works as more of a fly on the wall, and from these times we see scenes of her mother’s house, and quieter, more reflective moments where her mother props up the sink or lies on her porch. Elsewhere, handwritten notes scrawled upon scraps of paper are taped to the walls and doors. "My mum has a master’s degree in special education and was once brilliant. Now I find Post-its where she can’t remember how to spell the word 'beautiful'. At times, her handwriting can be more telling of her mental state than anything else."
In time, Spitz began sharing the photographs via a dedicated Instagram account. What began as a simple, visual diary snowballed, and she has now amassed over 50,000 followers. In 2017, she won TIME magazine’s Instagram Photographer of the Year. When asked about the ethics of sharing the work so widely, Spitz says it's something she wonders about often. When she was in university, she experienced a lot of resistance from classmates who felt like they shouldn’t be seeing what she was showing, as if they were uncomfortable with becoming privy to the raw, less polished parts of her home life. "At the end of the day, though, I truly feel that this story is about a daughter growing up with a mentally ill mother, and her perspective on the situation," Spitz says. "I wonder what right did my mother’s illness have to inhabit my entire childhood? Was all the yelling and physical abuse just part of her process and I was meant to rise above it? I feel that the story I am telling is about our family, and how I’ve survived and moved forward."
The real respect is knowing when not to show certain photographs. There are a lot of pictures that will never be published because of their intimacy or abrasiveness. I just don’t want to show my mum in that way.
The camera has brought Spitz solace, as a tool to help her process her experiences and reconcile who her mother is. "Photography is my voice, and after over 20 years of abuse you become so numb and silenced by the situation that you have to learn that you are allowed to have a voice. Photographing someone with these ailments who is not a relative is where the real issues come in. I am always going to have a sensitive eye, because no matter what, this is still my mother, and despite it all I love her immensely. I may always have questions about how someone can say they love you and still do horrible things to you, but that’s where the camera comes in. The real respect is knowing when not to show certain photographs. I photograph everything, but there are a lot of pictures that will never be published because of their intimacy or abrasiveness. I just don’t want to show my mum in that way."
It’s been almost a decade since Spitz began the project, and looking back on it now, she realises how formative it’s been. "My relationship with my mum will be forever changed by this project," she says. "We will always be bonded by this and our story. We always used to fight, and if we weren’t fighting we were spending money. Now, we still have our issues, but at least we always have something to do together." When asked if seeing the images had changed her mother’s view of herself, Spitz remembers one occasion where she quit drinking after seeing an image of herself smoking in bed. "Nowadays, though, I’m not sure. A photo of her was recently the cover of a German magazine, and she just kept saying 'Can you believe how good I look?'"
Spitz's favourite image of her mum is of her smoking on the front porch, which she took at the age of 21 while home from college. "She went out on the porch and everything fell into place," she muses. "The light was perfect, my mum’s red lipstick was flawless and she just smoked. It looked like a glamour scene from a 1950s film. It was like June Cleaver leaned back and said 'Fuck it', all unflinching pride and confidence. One of her favourite quotes when I was a child was from a Midwestern folk artist named Mary Engelbreit: 'Let’s put the fun back in dysfunctional!' That’s how I’ll always think of her."