Walk the line

Michael Nye

From a hugely pregnant Gulf War Veteran, to a Stanford writing teacher to a homeless ex-con, Michael Nye’s Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness multi-media exhibit crosses all economic and social spectrums to introduce us to 60 people with schizophrenia, chronic pain, depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Each portrait is accompanied by headphones to hear interviews from the person exhibited in front of you. This combination of audio and visual makes it seem like you’re standing before the person, meeting them for the first time and hearing about their life. What arises is a better understanding of what they’re going through and of how disconcertingly easy it could be, if placed in similar circumstances, to cross that fine, fragile line of control. Fine Line is touring nationally. See it at the Northwest Reno Library, 2325 Robb Drive, through April 27.

Your exhibit is really powerful. How did you get involved with this project?

Mental health is just something relevant to every family and every person in smaller and larger ways. I can’t think of any family that didn’t have a grandmother or neighbor or someone that didn’t have a mental health issue. Plus, I’m interested in just how our minds work—what happens. I also had a close friend that committed suicide, a father that had dementia, a law partner that committed suicide (I was a lawyer before becoming a photographer).

I dedicated the show to Kerry Crouch—he was going to UT in Texas and was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 21. He was a brilliant individual. For the next 29 years, he went to hospitals, jail, was on the street and then back home and finally committed suicide at the age of 49 in his mother’s garage. It was at that memorial with his family I thought about doing this project.

Behind all of my work—I’m doing a project now on hunger—is a belief that everyone has a wisdom about their own experience. They’re people who’ve been challenged and have been in a crisis … and they come out knowing something about what it is to be human.

How did you find the people?

At first it was hard because I went to doctors and professionals, and of course, they said, ‘We can’t tell you anything; it’s confidential.” Then I went to mental health groups and spoke to them and told them about the project—about 80 percent of hands would go up saying, ‘I’d love to get involved.’ It was so easy finding people to participate.

Your subjects are incredibly candid. How did you get them to open up to you?

I really don’t know. I’m kind of quiet and a bit shy in some ways. With work, I think I do have a sincere curiosity, in terms of learning. I see myself as a student in many ways, of wanting to hear and liking engagement of conversation and talking about things people don’t generally ask you. Maybe people feel that—that I do care about listening. And also, each person felt it was a serious project. I met with each person about three or four times. Every person stood before the camera [a number of times]. I really love the subtlety of a portrait, of someone looking into the lens. I wanted people to feel that they’re there with you. … You can’t be passive when you come to the exhibit. The narrative story is a way of stepping out of your own life and into the life of others. I think this exhibit is something we don’t talk about to this kind of extent. So I think it’s important to listen to these narratives. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in these stories.