San Antonio artist Michael Nye practiced law for 10 years before switching gears to pursue his love of photography full time. He brings a personal face to sweeping social issues that confront all of our communities.
His photography and audio exhibitions, “Children of Children” (stories of teenage pregnancy) and “A Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness,” have toured more than 120 cities in the United States and continue to tour. The “Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness,” recently displayed in Chicago, opens next in San Marcos, Texas.
Yet another exhibit, “About Hunger & Resilience,” debuted in San Antonio in 2010 and later came to St. James Cathedral in Chicago. And watch for Nye’s next
project about blindness and perception, currently in the works. He is the recipient of a Mid-America National Endowment for the Arts grant in photography, a Kronkosky Foundation grant and has participated in two Arts America tours in the Middle East and Asia.
Michael Nye talks about his exhibit “A Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness,” a collection of stories from 45 individuals who have struggled with mental illness.
MEDILL: What happened to set you on the path of these stories and portraits gathered in the exhibit? People share so many hopeful and heart-breaking stories like the one about the mother whose son said he was going to go inside house for lunch and she found him in the garage soon after. He had hung himself.
MN: Oh, that was Kerry, in fact that was the very first one of the whole exhibit. He had schizophrenia. That’s how it all started, with Kerry. His mother shocked me. That was my very first one…we loved Kerry. He was just a remarkable human being. Really wise, kind of a hero when he was young, at the University of Texas architecture school, diagnosed really young, and you know, back in the 1970s treatment was so much worse with the treatment and medication and I think he was damaged by some of that early on. It was a real tragedy. His sister was in our wedding. He would spend the night with us. We knew Kerry really, really well. When he died, we went to his memorial in Fredericksburg, Texas, in the hill country out on one of the rivers – beneath the cypress trees. And they spread his ashes. I just thought right then that I would like to do a project to kind of educate myself and try to understand it and honor Kerry’s life and think about image and presence and voice and his story. So I started out doing a couple of stories about Kerry’s life and it kind of branched out into a much larger project.
MEDILL: Did anyone have difficulty sharing their experiences?
MN: There were definitely challenges working on this project. It was very humbling. I read a lot of neuroscience when I was working on the project, but I was really taken with the earnestness of the people sharing their experiences. I was really moved by so many people saying “I’d like to contribute, if my voice helps I’d love to be a part of this.” Language is so inadequate to describe mental health or any profound experience like this. There are symbols, there are sounds, but still I think every person tries to do that…to find the right words to describe a panic attack or describe a psychotic episode or feeling depression. It’s not just depression, …it can close the capacity to give or receive affection. It can destroy connections. Some people say it’s a total feeling of insignificance. Other people say it’s like a void…like not being there, while other people say it’s not just pain but too much pain. It’s different for so many people. Major depression is nothing like feeling down. It just takes over someone. I think it’s unimaginable for anyone who has not experienced it, and I haven’t. I don’t have mental illness, but I have a father with dementia, I had a law partner once that committed suicide…I think we all have stories.
MEDILL: How did you choose the “A Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness” title?
MN: I worked on this project for about four years, traveling around the country meeting people from all over with really diverse experiences and I think the
title came toward the end as I worked and evolved and learned and studied and read and met and listened. It is a fine line. It’s such a fine line in all of our lives of our shared humanity and, of course, fragility. Anything could happen to our physical health or mental health. From work to our families to Boston bombings… so many things. Also I found that mental illness is pretty common. There’s rarely a family or extended family that doesn’t have someone with depression or something. This exhibit is very diverse and it didn’t really start out that way. It deals with agoraphobias and anxiety disorders, eating disorders and a lot of bipolar disorders, depression, mania, obsessive compulsive, panic attacks, schizoaffective disorder, PTSD…so lots of different experiences and illnesses and issues to deal with.
MEDILL: I noticed there was one picture where the woman’s face was kind of blurred, but it looked like it was on purpose almost. Was it?
MN: Yes, some people I think felt a little more vulnerable with their pictures and so I did a blur. That one was intentional. Sometimes they’re not, but as a photographer I like to kind of try things out.
MEDILL: How did you determine the format of the audio to go with the photographs?
MN: Well I started out practicing law for a number of years and I really became more and more interested in photography, just straight photography. So I took some sabbaticals and just started traveling to some pretty remote areas of the world like Siberia and refugee camps in the Middle East. I always came back with the whole notion of voice and stories. Always. And the images…you come back with what you heard and connections with people and communities. A few things happened to me where I really thought about reciprocity, the exchange, liking not just something quick but something extended and longer and slowly unwinding. I really like that process where you go back and you go back and you listen and learn. The questions change. The answers change. I think it’s pretty interesting: the still image and a moving voice. I like that. There’s also no strategy for the exhibit. Nobody commissioned me, other than a belief that rarely do you hear mental health from someone who actually experiences it in-depth. It really is about the experience of mental health versus a physician or expert or neuroscientist. It’s a pretty fundamental approach, I think, to just listening to other peoples’ voices.