Brow Beat

Why Instagram Sensation Melissa Spitz Takes Photos of Her Mentally Ill Mother

Melissa’s mother, Debra Adams
Scream, 2013 Courtesy of Melissa Spitz

Nine years ago, when Melissa Spitz was a junior at the University of Missouri, her photography professor gave her class an assignment to document something private. So Melissa turned her camera on her mother, who is mentally ill and an alcoholic—and with whom Spitz had a volatile relationship.

Those photos of Melissa’s mother, Debra Adams, became an ongoing series called You Have Nothing to Worry About. And for the last four years, Melissa has posted the photos on a dedicated Instagram account. That account has amassed more 50,000 followers, and Time magazine named her Instagram Photographer of the Year for 2017.

Spitz recently joined Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, the long-running public-radio show which is now also a Slate podcast. (Following this edited excerpt is a link to the audio of their full interview.)

Kurt Andersen: So you will be walking us through some of your images of your mother of the many thousands that exist. But before we talk about the pictures I want to talk about your mother and you and how this all came to be. So your mother has been ill for most of your life right?

Melissa Spitz: Yeah pretty much my entire life. She was institutionalized by the state of Washington when I was 6, 7. So my dad uprooted the whole family from Seattle, Washington, moved back to St. Louis and it just kind of downward spiraled from there. There’d be yelling matches, there’d be pills everywhere.

And she was and is an alcoholic?

Uh huh. Yes. There were instances where she didn’t know what was real—she would tell me there were people coming to kill us, they’re breaking in and they’re coming to get me. And that we were just kind of like, “No there’s nobody coming.”

You didn’t believe that even as a little kid?

As a little kid I did. When the incident happened in Seattle when she was institutionalized, and I was just 6 or 7, I had believed my mom and we were hiding in a bathtub. And she was telling me there were people coming to kill us. And I grew up my whole life being paranoid a little bit.

And your parents got divorced when you were a teenager?

Yes. My dad always said you know I wanted to wait until you were out of the house. When I was 16 there was a big instance where she took a bunch of pills. Paramedics were there and I just looked at my dad and I was like, “I would rather you guys be divorced than have this happen every single night,”  because it was just like a weekly event. Mom would get drunk and crash into the gas station. Mom would get drunk or overdose on pills and call 911. It was just like constant. It pulled the whole family apart.

And shortly after that you go off to the University of Missouri and eventually end up taking this photography course.

In my junior year for my photography class I took pictures of my friends partying and dancing. My teacher was like, “Don’t ever bring this into my class again.” I got shut down and it was embarrassing. And then we had this next to assignment: “Private.” And I was like OK I’m going to take my camera home and I’ve been wanting to do this for forever.

The first picture you submitted for that assignment is called First Shoot with Mom, 2009.

An image of Debra Adams reclining in a white bathrobe on a couch.
First Shoot with Mom, 2009 Courtesy of Melissa Spitz

I came home from school and my mom was drinking in her white bathrobe and putting on her red lipstick at like 3 in the afternoon in this very Grey Gardens–like scene. And I was just like, “What is going on?” It’s like a Thursday. So I said, “Sit on the couch I want to make your portrait.” And she sat down and that was the first frame I shot.

It’s a nice picture of a mom. Kind of sexy. She looks good, the lighting is nice. I know she must have seen this as, “Yeah I look pretty good.”

She has it hanging at her house at 40 by 60.

At five feet by three feet?

Yeah, like massive.

And she’s how old at this point, fiftysomething?

Yeah. 57, 58.

She’s kind of glamorous.

I’ve always felt that she straddles the line between tragic and glamorous.

But there are lots of pictures that you’ve done where your mother doesn’t look glamorous. Like this next photo, I Fell Down And Broke My Jaw, it’s from 2012.

Debra with a cut over eyebrow and a bruised chin.
”I fell down and broke my jaw,” 2012 Courtesy of Melissa Spitz

So this is my mom with a cut over her eyebrow and a huge bruise on her chin. But then she’s still totally made up with perfect eyeliner to her standards and her hair curled and jewelry on, which is always strange. I just came out of my room in the morning and she walked down the stairs looking like that and I was like, “Oh my God mom what happened to your face?” And she just looked at me and she just said, “Oh I fell down and I broke my jaw.” And it’s that type of exaggeration. Like if your jaw was broken you there’s no way you’d be talking.

There’s another picture on your website called Mom’s Appendectomy, 2013.

So this is my mom in the hospital after she had an emergency appendectomy.  And she’s holding up her hospital gown and exposing herself and her wound from her appendectomy to me.

And she is wearing no underwear.

No underwear, no. My mom’s appendix ruptured and she went four days without knowing. She was abusing so much drugs and alcohol at that time that she didn’t even know her appendix ruptured. I walked into her hospital room and I had my camera around my neck and she got out of bed and she said, “Do you want to see my scar?” And she just lifted up her hospital gown and I said, “Can I take your photo like this?” And she said of course and I took this and then I looked at my camera and I was like I cannot believe I just made that picture. But there’s something about her eyes. I mean, she’s sober.

Was that one where you go like oh yeah she’s sober she wasn’t drunk. But did you have the thought: really, is this too far?

No. Never. Because for that’s like that’s where I came from—and this in the most honest way is who I came from.

Next picture we’re looking at is called “Mom’s Vacation, 2013.”

A comforter full of cigarette burn holes covering a woman's legs while she holds a cigarette.
Mom’s Vacation, 2012 Courtesy of Melissa Spitz

So this is my mom smoking in bed.  She’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. And then it almost looks like a treasure map across her lap with these burnt holes. But it’s actually her comforter folded over.

With these like dozens of cigarette burn holes.

I went upstairs and she was just sitting there smoking with the comforter folded over like that. And I said, “Mom don’t light yourself on fire.” And she said, “This is what I like to do Melissa. I like to have my wine in my bed. And I like to smoke.” And I left and I was just like well that’s mom’s vacation—there she is, she had this whole island vibe.

So, in 2014 you created an Instagram account which you also called “You Have Nothing to Worry About.” It has a lot of these pictures and what’s so interesting to me is that my experience of Instagram is: “Oh, look at my beautiful life.”

Exactly.

Whereas this account of your disturbed mother is kind of the opposite.

Well social media allows us so much to create and manipulate how we’re perceived. And so it is in a way kind of throwing the middle finger to that type of life because it’s not real. Social media is so fake and that’s why I’ve always just been like I’m going to be brutally honest.

And from the beginning your mother has been down with this project?   

Yeah she loves the attention. She’s always just been like, “Take a picture of me here, take a picture of me here.” She was always very—I mean she still is very beautiful but she was gorgeous. Growing up like a platinum blonde, just a beautiful woman. And so I think that fleeting beauty is why she wants this attention and it has always just enjoyed being the center of attention.

Were there ethical issues you thought about like, should I do this

Definitely. There were times where you know she’d be so drunk and then I’d be like OK those pictures maybe aren’t ethically sound from her perspective. But then on my end you know it is my perspective and it was my life and it was my home. It’s just as much mine as it was hers. So I just keep shooting what’s in front of me.

Listen to this episode of Studio 360 below, where host Kurt Andersen introduces the interview with Melissa Spitz at 33:05, and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts.