A photographer's quest to understand mental illness develops into an exhibit of striking images and intimate voices Posted on Sun, Sep. 24, 2006
By ALYSON WARD — STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
Elizabeth was riding on a San Antonio city bus when her heart started pounding.
The pounding got faster, harder, nearly knocking against her chest.
Her palms were sweaty. She couldn’t breathe.
Suddenly, inexplicably, she was paralyzed with fear.
Elizabeth knew what it was: a panic attack, something she’s experienced for years. But that didn’t make it any easier to handle. Overcome with fear, she couldn’t stop crying. So, she did the only thing she could think of: She got down on the floor of the bus where she could hide, waiting out the fear, hoping it would pass.
She didn’t get to hide for long. The bus driver pulled over and asked her to get off. Her behavior was frightening the other passengers.
When it was over, Elizabeth called photographer Michael Nye, who had just taken her portrait as part of a project on mental illness.
“I just had a panic attack,” she told him. Nye asked her to come to his studio and talk about it.
Elizabeth told him, in excruciating detail, what it felt like on that bus — the sudden sense of dread, the way it felt like a heart attack, the sense that she was outside her body, out of control.
Nye recorded what Elizabeth told him. He photographed her again. In two-dimensional black-and-white, she peers from behind her long hair with a slight smile, leaning against a concrete wall on a sad-looking city block. She looks shy, but somehow brave — both victim and survivor.
Nye’s portrait of Elizabeth is one of dozens he assembled over four years, portraits of people who suffer from some form of mental illness. That exhibit, “Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness,” runs through Dec. 3 at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
The San Antonio lawyer-turned-photographer first became interested in mental illness after the suicide of a family friend, Kerry Crouch. Crouch, who was 49 when he died, learned that he had schizophrenia at age 20. He spent years struggling with his illness, living on the streets, in hospitals, in jail, with his mother. When Crouch died, Nye started interviewing the man’s family members and other friends.
“I thought then that I would love to hold onto his memory,” Nye says, “… he was such an extraordinary human being. He was just really special.”
The project began as a way to honor Crouch, but Nye soon realized he could use these components — in-depth interviews, revealing photographs — to form an entire project that explores mental illness.
So he started seeking out people who suffer from panic attacks, schizophrenia, depression, a whole spectrum of problems. He spent several days with each of them, asking questions, letting them talk about their lives. It took months of searching, months of interviewing, months of editing. The final result: a compelling portrait of each person, shared through sight and sound. The photos are all black and white, but the recorded voices that accompany them provide the color, adding texture and movement and life.
In four or five minutes of audio, Nye’s subjects each offer intimate details about their lives, their thoughts, their hopes, their regrets, their fears. Sometimes the painful details are hard to hear. But despite their honesty and openness, these people remain somewhat anonymous. They are known only by their first names; basic details — such as ages and hometowns — are missing. The semi-anonymity protects their identities to some degree, but it also accomplishes something else: It makes mental illness seem universal. The people in the photos could be anyone.
Which is, of course, the point.
“Fine Line” is sponsored by the Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County, an organization of agencies devoted to improving the delivery of mental health services. It is part of the group’s long-running anti-stigma campaign, which tries to make people more aware — and more understanding — of mental illness, an umbrella term that can encompass everything from schizophrenia and depression to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
People understand more about mental illness than ever before, says Ted Blevins, executive director of the Lena Pope Home in Fort Worth. But at the same time, he says, “there’s still that awkward silence, or sometimes that fear of it.”
Blevins was the Mental Health Connection’s board president when the group decided to bring Nye’s exhibit to Fort Worth. He talks about how often people misunderstand mental illness, assuming schizophrenia is a mental disability or treating depression as a moral shortcoming. The exhibit is designed to show that the mentally ill suffer from a disease, not simply a lack of willpower or a weakness of character — and that this disease is only a portion of their lives.
Nye went to homeless shelters and mental health hospitals to find many of his subjects. Most are from Texas, though he spent time with patients at the Mojave Mental Health center in Las Vegas.
He found a woman who has spent years in a kitchen chair, paralyzed by agoraphobia that has made her afraid to leave the safety of her home. A man who stopped speaking for 20 years. A woman who has suffered severe, debilitating depression since she was a toddler. A man who tried to commit suicide by drinking Drano and bleach.
“Whoever said ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ knew exactly what they were talking about, and we have both,” Blevins says.
In some of the images, troubled eyes seek yours and plead for understanding. Other subjects steal away from the camera, appearing in shadows, backs turned or faces blurred.
The photos become multidimensional, though, when you hear the voice of each person, telling his or her own story, explaining what it is like to suffer from depression, schizophrenia, panic attacks, bipolar disorder.
“With this exhibit,” Nye says, “it was really important to me that you feel like the person is there with you. … There’s something, to me, that’s really interesting about a still image and a moving voice. I really love that combination.”
At the Fort Worth exhibit, 40 of Nye’s photographs hang on the wall. One is of Susan, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. She talks about how she’ll listen to the same verse of a song for 10 or 15 hours at a time, how she’ll clean and re-clean her kitchen.
“I have no explanation,” says a recording of Susan’s voice. “I just know that to the outside world, you look like a raving psychopath. I know my neighbors, some of them, must think that when I play my music.”
Susan, like many of the others Nye interviewed, worries about how she looks to the outside world. And, like many of Nye’s subjects, she is smart and articulate. Here’s how she explains how it feels to be obsessive-compulsive: “It’s like a calling, you know? … It’s like a tap on your shoulder that you should go do this, right now. Summoned is the word, because you have to do it right now.”
“One thing I learned,” Nye says, during his work on the project, “is that mental illness is nothing like the movies. … With most people, you’re just living your life. It’s no different, but you have an illness.”
Nye discovered Jamie, a woman who suffers from panic attacks and chronic pain, at a shelter for the homeless. With a distinct British accent, she reminds listeners that no one is immune to mental illness: “I am homeless right now, and I consider myself very well-educated. But I’m going to tell you: Don’t be naive. I don’t care if you’re a doctor, a lawyer — I know two Vietnam veteran pilots who are here on the streets. Mental illness discriminates no one. You could be here, too.”
Is that the overriding message? Well, it’s Jamie’s message. Nye says he was careful not to manipulate his subjects’ words or edit their statements to push an agenda.
“Many people go into projects trying to persuade or convince or have a point of view,” Nye says.
Nye says he tried to let his subjects tell their own stories.
“What I believe so strongly,” he says, “is that everyone has a wisdom about their own life that no one else knows, based on their own experience.”
During the exhibit’s run, the Mental Health Connection — aided by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History — will provide weekly programs to inform people about depression and other forms of mental illness. The project aims to encourage people to talk about mental health, to get help if they need it, and to understand mental illness a little better.
“The exhibit is not about ‘those poor people,'” Nye says. “I don’t think anyone wants pity in this exhibit. It’s about these individuals being our teachers, maybe informing us about human nature and about ourselves. They’re just saying, ‘This is my own experience; this is what it’s like living with schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or agoraphobia, or panic attacks. This is how I have seen it.'”
“My favorite place to be is a place that I’m most safe. It’s a corner in my kitchen, and I’ve got it fixed up to look like a treehouse. On my left is a window with plants everywhere, and everything a person would want — books, music — that’s in my safe place. I spend three-quarters of my waking life in that safe place.” — Beth
Beth, shown above, suffers from anxiety and agoraphobia, which cause her to avoid going out. In fact, she has spent most of the past seven years in a kitchen chair, leaving her safe space only when absolutely necessary.
“She’s terrified of what people think of her and how they judge her,” photographer Michael Nye says, which makes it hard for her to leave the safety of her apartment. “She still has a hard time leaving” her safe space, he says. “It’s terrifying to go out. But she’s getting out.”
In this exhibit, Nye includes two portraits of the same woman, once calling her Elizabeth and once calling her Beth, to show two sides of her mental illness. Most people who see the exhibit, he says, never realize the two are one. (The image of Beth as Elizabeth, the woman who suffered a panic attack on a bus, is not shown on our pages.)
“I’m proud of Dylan’s presence. He exudes something that I don’t quite understand, but I feel calm around him.”
— Cindy, with son Dylan
Dylan is autistic. His mother is an artist, and his father is a researcher for a medical school. Because of their different approaches to life — science and art — Dylan’s parents speak about their son’s autism from different angles, Nye says. But both are devoted to their son.
“I spent more time with this family than I did with almost anyone,” Nye says.
People often don’t think about autism as a mental illness, Nye says, so he wanted to include autism in his project. Dylan’s mind is able to remember places and complicated directions with ease — but he doesn’t communicate like a normal child, and he didn’t talk to Nye. In the exhibit’s recording, you can hear Dylan’s voice making sounds in the background as his mother speaks.
“You never know when are going to happen. They can happen in the middle of the night, during the day, during dinner. I think they’re one of the more disabling things. Your heart will pound in your chest, you can hear it in your head. It can make you think you’re going crazy. You’ll think you’re having a heart attack.” -Jamie
Nye found Jamie in a San Antonio shelter for the homeless. He told her what he was doing, and about a week later she came by his makeshift studio and asked to be a part of the project.
Jamie speaks with a beautiful British accent. She tells a lot of stories about her past — she says that she grew up in England, the daughter of wealthy parents, and that she lived in embassies and palaces and the Ritz-Carlton. She suffers from an anxiety disorder, chronic pain, panic attacks, depression. Shortly after this picture was taken, Jamie gave birth to a girl.
“I don’t know who I am. I think about that a lot, and I wonder why I am the way I am, or why I think the way I do and what makes me me. I’m just a simple girl. I’m not one to want the most fabulous things. I just want my family to be happy and to just have a good life. So I don’t know what that makes me.” — Anna
Anna suffers from manic depression. She has dealt with depression from a very early age — she remembers first experiencing the symptoms when she was 4 or 5.
In her recording, Anna talks about how afraid she was when she was young, how she carried her mother’s picture with her to school, terrified every day that she might never see her mother again.
“I was terrified of everything — myself and things that weren’t even real,” she says. “I just wanted to crawl in a little ball in the corner and disappear.”
“I had no idea why were running down my face. … I just could not stop crying. That’s when I knew something was definitely wrong with me.” — Michael
Michael was the editor and part-owner of an alternative newspaper in Texas. One day at work, he realized he had been sitting at his computer for hours, crying — and he couldn’t explain why. He asked one of his colleagues to take him home, where he cried for a week without stopping. Eventually, his condition was diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder, a mood disorder with symptoms of schizophrenia. He also has panic attacks and other anxiety problems.
Michael works at a television station now.
“This guy is totally brave and courageous,” says Michael Nye. “I admire him so much because he’s willing to be seen like this , and he’s out there in the world as a professional.”
“I’m always curious about life, what all happened and used to happen in life, and I also am curious about the brain, especially since I’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, because it is a wonder how you think and function and how it works. So it does hold my curiosity.” — Adrienne
Nye found Adrienne at the Mojave Mental Health center in Las Vegas. Her mental illness caused her to injure herself, beating herself up when she was going through difficult periods. She’d give herself bruises, cuts and scratches, Nye says — but what struck him was her intelligence and her goodness.
“She’s really beautiful,” Nye says, “her voice and her sense of kindness and compassion — it was really remarkable. Her curiosity and — just a human being you respect.”
Adrienne passed away this summer.
“I guess I fear what
people think about me quite a bit. Maybe a lot of schizophrenics fear that.
I fear how I come across to people.” — Jeff
Jeff has schizophrenia, and many of the people he encounters assume he has a mental disability. He’s slow to respond to questions, sometimes leaving 15- or 20-second gaps in conversation. But he’s intelligent and insightful, Nye found, as long as you’re willing to wait for him to speak. Nye spent about a week just listening to Jeff, and that allowed Jeff’s humanity to shine through.
“He is filled with that sense of wanting,” Nye says. “Caring what his parents thought of him, wanting to be married, wanting the same kinds of things everybody else wants.”
Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness
Portions of “Fine Line” feature intense descriptions of mental illness, abuse and suicide attempts, so it’s not suitable for all children. A few kid-friendly portraits, however, will be assembled in a single area so that parents can allow children to see at least part of the exhibit.
Through Dec. 3
Fort Worth Museum of Science and History
1501 Montgomery St., Fort Worth
Admission to the exhibit is free; other museum exhibits cost ( for children).
Information: (817) 255-9300 or www.fwmuseum.org
Throughout the exhibit’s run, the Mental Health Connection will offer “Therapeutic Thursdays,” free two-hour weekly sessions that offer expert information. The informal sessions, in the exhibit room, will let visitors ask questions about a long list of mental health issues: depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, grief, addiction, ADHD and more. The first session, 10 a.m. to noon Thursday, focuses on depression. Times and topics vary; go to www.mentalhealthconnection.org for a complete schedule.
Visitors can join weekly noontime discussions about mental health at a free brown-bag series throughout the exhibit’s run. Each week, a psychiatrist will be on hand to talk about depression in children, adolescents and adults. (The professionals will be able to offer information and resources, but they can’t provide therapy.) Sessions are 12:15 to 1 p.m. Thursdays in a museum conference room; go to www.mentalhealthconnection.org for details.
SOURCES: Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County
Alyson Ward, 817-390-7988 firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2006 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.