Navigating Through Sensitive Stories
For some time, I’ve been interested in mental illness. How could I not be? There’s so much ambiguity and mystery surrounding the inner-workings of the mind. And, unfortunately, when issues of mental illness appear in the news, it’s often associated with violence, confusion and chaos. It’s a topic that raises more questions than answers. And, it seems, the lede is often “What could have been done?”
As fascinated in the topic as I’ve been, I never thought I’d spend the second year of my masters program focusing my projects on it.
Personal matters in my life got me started on a project for my independent art studies class last fall where I’ve been photographing and interviewing people diagnosed with or suffering from a range of mental illnesses. It’s a project I will continue working on, but will at least be publishing a portion of it sometime early next week. That project lead me to another, one I’ve been working on since October. It was and still is unexpected—at least for me—in so many ways.
I first met Deborah through her daughter Tara, who has bipolar disorder. Tara mentioned how her mom recently became the legal guardian of three children all diagnosed with mental illnesses, the oldest being 7 (at the time I began this project. He recently turned 8). I spoke with Deborah and she was more than willing to work with me, which I found surprising given her situation. Deborah is 62, single and was unemployed (she recently received her state license to watch children at her house). She was frustrated and needed an outlet. Back when I met her, she was trying to place the eldest in a residential facility given that he’d been hospitalized multiple times in the last year and has had a number of violent outbursts at school, as well as suicidal tendencies. But she could not afford any such facility to place him in, and in order for the state to pick up the tab, she’d have to relinquish custody, which she’s unwilling to do for the time being.
And so, she let me into their lives under one condition—that the children’s names be kept anonymous. She hopes to adopt them, maybe sometime next year, but there is some resistance from family members (the kids are distant cousins of hers and were in their grandmother’s care until entering Deborah’s home as foster care. Eventually, the legal guardianship followed). That seemed a simple enough request to oblige.
But now I’m kind of stuck.
I’ve been interviewing Deb since the fall, with the original intent being to use the audio as a form of notes that I could transcribe later. But I always made sure to have clean audio, just in case I turn this into a multimedia piece. I love multimedia and that’s where I’m gravitating. Recently, after listening to some of the audio, I realized how wonderful of a storyteller Deb is. I kind of fell in love with her voice. One of the main challenges I face now is that the interviews don’t censor the children’s identity, so I have limited options for what to do with the audio. I can either:
-Dip the audio when the names are mentioned. This may seem jarring but it’d be less so than if I were to incorporate some kind of artificial noise here (although I don’t know why I would do that?)
-Cut and paste pronouns. This would not only be time-consuming, but potentially add confusion since she talks about three kids (although the eldest is her main concern and the one she discusses the most).
-Redo the interviews. I’m especially hesitant to go with this option because she says some poignant things and I’m reluctant to risk losing that.
Whichever option I go with (and I have to decide very soon, since this is due Monday), I’ll be sure to include a disclaimer addressing the absence of the kids’ names and the reason why.
A few other unexpected dilemmas recently popped up. This morning, I called Deb to touch base and she mentioned that she was at a therapy appointment for the kids’ younger half brother who is not usually in her care. I asked what that was about and it seems that, at least for the time being, he’s in her care as a foster child (long story involving neglect, drugs and domestic violence). I’m hoping to photograph and maybe interview Deb one more time between now and Monday and I can’t show this child because of his foster status I’m thinking I can and should still photograph this child to show how Deb’s load has increased, but I just need to approach it in a way where he can’t visibly be identified.
Another issue that came up today is the fact that my main focus is Deb, her sacrifices, struggles, her relationship with the kids and the decision to keep fighting for them. This Sunday is Mother’s Day and I should spend it with her. I know I should spend it with her. But there are other potential plans in my personal life that I’m hesitant to back out of. Finding the balance between my personal life and my shooting life is something that will only become increasingly challenging as I continue in this field. The best thing I can think to do is spend the latter part of the day with her, which means I will likely miss church—an important part of her life that I’ve not yet had the chance to photograph (for a number of reasons, one of which being that she’d been shopping around for a new place of worship). Still not really sure what I’ll do come Sunday. Or with the editing. But I know I’ll need to start wrapping this up really soon—this project is now one for my Picture Story class (which is the capstone course in the program) and, if I haven’t mentioned earlier, it’s due Monday.