You Have Nothing to Worry About: Photos by Melissa Spitz

“To Do: ¡Be Fucing Happy!” (sic), “Reminder: You Have Nothing to Worry About!” Two notes on paper ripped from a spiral bound notebook, taped to a white door. The kind of note you desperately scribble at 2am when you can’t sleep, when you’ve been up for hours thinking about every shitty thing you’ve ever done or said and all the reasons you’re perpetually unsatisfied. These are the personal moments Melissa Spitz documents in her crushingly honest photography exhibition You Have Nothing to Worry About.

Spitz has spent the last five years photographing her relationship with her mother Debbie Adams, a woman plagued with a range of mental illnesses and substance-abuse issues. Melissa’s mom has also struggled with multiple nervous breakdowns. With a frankness that I’ve seldom ever experienced, Melissa explained how this project began: In 2009, she transferred from a college in Illinois to the University of Missouri in Columbia, which was only 2 hours from home. Her parents divorced in 2006 and her mother was not adjusting well. Melissa began to frequently visit to check on her and see friends. She says, “I was shocked by our family situation and my relationship with her. Things had changed so quickly in such a short amount of time. The dust of my parents’ divorce had settled, and I felt ready to document what was left.”




In her artist’s statement, Melissa admits that her relationship with her mother has always been tense: “[F]raught with animosity,” she writes. You need only look at the photos to see what she means. “Scream”, a photo taken at her mother’s high school football field in St. Louis, MO, immediately establishes the depth of the series. Arresting in the violence of its emotion, the piece demands that we acknowledge the two layers of Ms. Adams’ personality: her vulnerability, and her awareness as a subject— there are moments where she is actively performing and moments when she seems to forget the camera is there. Both facets are valuable as insight into the mind of a deeply conflicted person. As someone who seems to enjoy the attention a subject under study receives, she is willing to expose weakness for immediate reward (attention), but tries tenuously to hide an obvious bundle of guilt, shame, and darkness within. “She sat on the bleachers and started screaming, which initially was very fake. She kept screaming until I could feel pain in her voice and it was the same pain that I felt about the situation with her and my family, so I hit the shutter.”


“Mom After Appendectomy”

You Have Nothing to Worry About successfully merges those moments of performativity with bursts of transparency. Images like “Broken Jaw”, “Mom After Appendectomy” and “Open Wound” document physical traumas, while “New Make-Up” and “Praying” are startling studies of a deeply personal internal struggle. A markedly effective curatorial choice, “New Make-Up” takes up the entire back wall of the gallery. With styled hair, smudged lipstick and shakily-applied eyeliner, Ms. Adams looks outward— lost and confused. Her glazed-over eyes and slack jaw give her a look of disappointment, a complacency with loneliness. While it is undoubtedly difficult to be the child of a mentally ill mother, the struggle of a mentally ill woman to be a good mother is heartbreaking in its own right.


“New Make-Up”


Directly in the path of her stare stands a white rectangular table covered with 5×7 test prints. Mixed in with the photos we’ve already seen on the walls are photos that help fill in the gaps of Spitz’s story. It’s here that we get a glimpse of Adams as a mother, standing with her arm around Melissa and cooking a meal. There’s a photo of a framed picture, obviously taken years ago, showing the family together at a theme park — Melissa’s painted face smiling as she’s embraced by her mother. A rainbow prism of light is refracted over the picture, reminding us that the family in this picture exists now only in the fantasyland of memory. Other images show Adams hunched in a corner crying, praying with a rosary, and lying in a hospital bed.

Melissa admits that it has been “extremely cathartic” for her to make this work. Though dedicated to examining her mother’s personal complexities, this series has allowed Spitz to come to terms with her own feelings. “By turning the camera toward my mother and my relationship with her, I can capture her behavior as an echo of my own emotional response,” she told me. As a result of their sessions together, the relationship between Melissa and her mother has grown much stronger. Melissa says, “I [do] feel more empathy for my mother. The pictures have showed her my perspective of her lifestyle and held up a mirror for her.”


Ms. Adams declined to be interviewed for this piece. In place of a formal response from her, we present this poem written by her to her daughter, Melissa.

– My Melissa –

She moves her camera
and takes a shot
then turns it into a
work of art

Her style, her wit
the ways she plays
turns darkest nights
to sunny days

An artist in her right
she stands
If I could only hold
her hand

They say I am a part
of her life
but she’s independent, full
of strife

So aim your camera just
at me
And help me know
what others see

My life is done in blacks
and whites
of crazy days
and endless nights

You Have Nothing to Worry About remains on display at Fahm Gallery until May 11. To view more of Melissa’s works, check out her website.

Updated 5/12/14: Melissa’s mother’s name was mistakenly published as “Mrs. Spitz.” This has been corrected to reflect her name change to Debbie Adams.

Kayla Goggin

Author: Kayla Goggin

Kayla Goggin is the editor of the Savannah Art Informer.

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