Many kids perceive their parents to be something of an embarrassment in front of their friends. Some would even go as far as to describe their mom as crazy. But for New York-based photographer Melissa Spitz spending time with her mom is intensely emotional. In fact, for seven years Spitz has been taking candid pictures of her mentally ill mother, with each image as haunting as it is beautiful. And for the last two years, Spitz has been sharing them on Instagram.
On first glance, this looks like an innocent photo of a mother proudly showing off her beautiful, intelligent daughter. But with the backstory in play, the photo takes on a whole new depth. There’s a disconnection in the mother’s eyes, perhaps, and a distance in her embrace. Moreover, there’s a glint in the daughter’s eye: she is, in fact, holding back tears.
The caption on this photo reads, “The year I was on Homecoming Court, 2006 I am crying in this photo. I was embarrassed by my mother’s mental and physical state around my friends and their families.” It continues, “I remember her telling me to suck my stomach in before I took the photo. I just smiled and tried to fight off the tears.”
“Everyone says their mom’s crazy,” Melissa Spitz, the daughter in the photo, told Broadly in September 2016. “I remember being like, ‘No. My mom is crazy.’” And the 27-year-old Brooklyn-based photographer has spent the last seven years documenting her mother’s mental illness.
But Spitz was just six years old when her mom Deborah was first admitted into psychiatric care with psychotic paranoia. And with her father abroad at the time, she and her brother Adam were left in the care of family friends. Sadly, it was the beginning of a long mental heath battle that would slowly rip her family apart.
After she was sectioned, Deborah’s mental and physical health continued to deteriorate. Spitz told the Huffington Post in September 2016 that Deborah “[continued] on a downward spiral after that. A hysterectomy, followed by a cancer diagnosis, a full round of chemotherapy and radiation, on top of her pre-existing mental health issues.”
“My mother has caused our family a lot of pain over the years,” Spitz told Time in May 2015. Unfortunately, the family received various diagnoses from medics, who concluded that Deborah was suffering from everything from alcohol dependence to a personality disorder. Of course, it put a massive strain on the family. In fact, Spitz’ parents eventually called time on their 27-year marriage, while her brother Adam increasingly distanced himself from their mom and her illness.
Spitz herself continued her education in Savannah, Georgia, after graduating Columbia’s University of Missouri. But she remained her mother’s primary carer throughout her illness, making the journey back and forth to her mom in between her photography classes. And it was around this time that the “Nothing To Worry About” project began to take shape.
“I’ve been photographing my whole life,” Spitz told Broadly. In fact, her grandfather introduced her to photography when she was young, and as she grew up she found it a useful means of escape during her parents’ divorce. She said, “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.”
The project actually started out as an ongoing graduate assignment for which students were asked to photograph an aspect of their personal lives. So it was perhaps inevitable that her mother would become Spitz’ subject. Fortunately, though, it marked the beginning of not just the project, but a new relationship between Spitz and her mom – and her mom with herself.
Spitz told Broadly, “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.”
At the start of the project, Spitz’ mom was hitting the bottle heavily and spent most of her time drunk. As a result, Spitz began to wonder if she was taking advantage of her mother when she wasn’t in a position to object or perhaps even publicly shaming her. And many commenters shared the same concerns. But, in fact, the project forced her mom to take a look at herself, and she stopped drinking altogether.
Actually, Spitz’ mom proved to be an incredibly willing participant. Yes, Deborah apparently insists that her daughter captures her most difficult moments, to the point that Spitz herself often feels ill at ease. She told the Huffington Post, “She will ask me to photograph her in situations that make me uncomfortable and in some way takes more control with forcing me to look [rather] than me wanting to see.”
Spitz told Broadly, “The work has been called exploitative and people have said that I’m putting her out there in a bad light… 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!’”
Spitz continued, “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.” In fact, Spitz feels her work gives power to her mother; it’s a way of humanizing her throughout her mental health struggles.
Moreover, her mom’s role has grown into one of more than merely a subject. In fact, this is very much a joint project, with the two turning their often fragmented relationship into a far more understanding one. And so it’s a project that has been beneficial to both women. For instance, Spitz recalled the moment that the project forced her to confront her own suppressed feelings about her mom’s problems.
Deborah had been a star cheerleader in high school, and so Spitz took her back to the school and to the gym so that she could snap her photograph there. “She just started screaming and crying,” she told Time. “It was really fake at first but she kept doing that, and all of a sudden [she] had this tone that was just so real and full of pain.”
Spitz continued, “That was when I knew that the work was a conversation that was not only me watching her but also an echo of how I feel about living and dealing with her.” She added, “My hope for the [story] is to show that these issues can happen to anyone, from any walk of life and that there is nothing to be ashamed about.”
For now, Spitz has found the perfect showcase for her images on Instagram. Some images stand alone; others are featured over a series of six or nine posts to make the whole picture. The mixed up images, meanwhile, symbolize mental illness itself. And ultimately, it’s a subject that Spitz hopes to get people talking about.
Spitz aims to keep the project going for as long as both participants are willing and able. Ultimately, the photographer hopes to someday produce an exhibition or book showing ten years of portraits. She told Time, “I can finally take something I love doing and share it with my mom. It’s been a mirror for both of us to see our lives.”