Melissa Spitz photographs her mother’s struggles with mental illness
In 2017, Melissa Spitz was named TIME Instagram Photographer of the Year, for her deeply personal Instagram account, cataloguing her mother’s struggles with mental illness. Spitz employs the platform to open up a conversation about mental health. One of her captions begins: ‘The first time I thought my mom killed herself I came home to find our house in a mess…’. Her account comprises beautifully shot portraits, screenshots of personal conversations, and archive footage of her mum from Spitz’s childhood. The work is arresting in its honesty; “I’ve been embarrassed by my mum for my entire life,” says Spitz. “So it’s been very liberating to say ‘fuck it, this is my mum, this is my life’.”
Through her Instagram account, Spitz has built the community and support system that she lacked growing up with a mentally unwell parent. “I think about when I was a teenager and my mum was really bad, and I spent my time locked in my room to hide away,” she explains. “Had I had a community, I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and alone.” Spitz has began to incorporate the people she connects with on Instagram into her work. In an exhibition of the series, which is currently on show in Ohio, the walls are covered in streams of comments from people saying how they have been impacted by the work.
Spitz is unselective about the mediums she uses to tell her mother’s story, which is why Instagram has become such a good space for her to show her work. For Spitz, archival footage and photographs, in particular, have also helped her to come to terms with, and decode, her past. “The archival stuff is my way of investigating, because either I don’t remember it all, or at the time I convinced myself it wasn’t that bad,” she explains. “It’s interesting to go back and watch videos where my mum is completely zoned out and staring at the floor. They are very foreshadowing.”
Spitz remembers her mum being institutionalised she was seven, and the strained relationship between them that followed. “The only thing we would ever do together was to go on these big shopping sprees,” she says. “And then mum would get drunk in a restaurant and I would have to drive home.” Spitz first photographed her mum 10 years ago, when she was studying photography at the University of Missouri, and the work has changed the course of their relationship since. “I think she feels really seen by me,” says Spitz, “And being photographed has become an outlet for her to act out how she feels.”
However, Spitz acknowledges that sometimes her mum abuses the power that comes with being photographed; “When I come home, she’ll ask me to set up the tripod,” explains Spitz. “And there are times when she has a panic attack and asks me to take her picture or other times when she’ll act as though she’s having a panic attack and it’s like she’s on stage.” Spitz remembers one occasion where her mum, who had developed an obsession with a television show about a woman with multiple personality disorder, went to get diagnosed from a new doctor who had no knowledge of her medical history. “She got dressed up as all these alter-egos and demanded I photograph all of them,” says Spitz. “It was very negative and intense.”
Spitz believes that on the whole though, the series has been useful and freeing for both herself and her mum. “My brother thinks it’s the only thing we can do to rise above it all,” she explains. The outpouring of support and the questions she receives from people on Instagram prove that community can be a much-needed and often underestimated lifeline. “Finding this community has saved my life,” says Spitz.
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