It is, unfortunately, rare that we see photography about mental illness in which the protagonist is also the creator. Christina Riley’s Back To Me bucks the trend.
Back To Me is a visual dip into a disorienting episode Riley experienced when she briefly absconded from her medication routine. She was without anchor and the photographs trace her imperiled, but thankfully not fatal, journey before returning to a mental state she could claim as her own; before she found a way back to herself.
Simultaneously, Riley experienced euphoria and suicidal thoughts. Freewheeling brain chemistry forced her into an escape and explore mode, but the exhilaration was not something she could control. She describes being outside of herself and of living another person’s experience.
The facts of the episode are not immediately apparent from the grainy images alone. There’s a looming threat but as the images vacillate between self-portraits and landscapes of unidentified places, it’s difficult to figure out the source of the threat. Perhaps the two are one and the same?
Clearly something is not right, but it is only a brief text on the book’s penultimate page that contextualises Riley’s solitary portraits amid the dark, between the light snow and at the side of unknown roads.
I remember driving down Highway 1 south feeling almost certain I wouldn’t return. The bottle of wine I planned to drink before jumping was sitting in the cup-holder alongside a bottle of Ativan and my camera. I cried the whole way to the bridge feeling guilt already for what I hadn’t yet done. I stepped out of my car to a cold, foggy blowing sky. But through all that, stars. I stood there in the darkness and they spoke to me. They were just for me and their message was clear.
It would kill him.
Riley somehow in the swirl of illogic and depression Riley saw the effect her suicide would have on a loved one. She didn’t jump, she turned back. What part did photographs play in the decision? Any at all? Are these photographs saving therapy? Or are they mere documentation? That this remains unclear is one of the strengths of this unique book.
Tony Fouhse, publisher at Straylight Press, says, “One way she grounded herself during this period of madness was by taking photos of herself and the strange world of mania and depression, euphoria and delusion, she found herself in.”
So, Back To Me is part memoir, part self-warning but mostly self-love. Riley came through it and a significant part of understanding and healing has been the sequencing and production of the book. She has found use — a secondary audience, if you will — for images and moments that at the time of making were only for her.
I wanted to ask Riley about that time and the times since, so I emailed a few questions.
Scroll down for the Q&A
Prison Photography (PP): Describe your life and thoughts leading up to this episode of instability.
Christina Riley (CR): Throughout my life I have struggled with a mood disorder. At ten-years-old I started behaving extremely unpredictably. It came out of nowhere. My parents had no idea what was going on, until after attempting suicide twice, I was hospitalized for a year. I walked out of there at age 14 with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Leading up to the most recent episode shown in Back To Me I was feeling pretty level (so I thought). It lead me to believe I was misdiagnosed, so I took it upon myself to go off of my medication. I remember my mind racing with ideas. I had endless energy. The world revolved around me. My self-confidence and sexuality was inflated. Things couldn’t get better. Then suddenly I was convinced I was in love with someone else. Then there was no stopping me. I thought my behavior was coming from a genuine place. I didn’t know I was sick.
I was launched into the world you see in Back To Me.
PP: Between which dates do you identify the episode? And between which dates were you making photographs.
CR: It’s all such a haze but I think the episode began in November 2011 and got very serious pretty quick. It feels like it was an eternity and somehow a dream. Time did not exist. I would say that the entire episode — including the slow transition into my “normal” self — lasted a year-and-a-half or something.
I began taking the pictures around December 2011 as things were becoming more intense and I was losing control. I really had an overwhelming feeling that it had to be photographed, like it felt somehow crucial to my existence. I would be in those moments of living in that other world, and there was no question. I stopped photographing it pretty much when I came around to seeing that I was better – that things were better. I could see it in the pictures and knew it was done.
PP: How, with what, and/or why did you come out the other side of the episode?
CR: It took a lot of will power, medication, therapy and support from family and friends to get here. Everything comes to an end, so it was inevitable one way or another. I’m just happy I didn’t kill myself. I came out of this a better, more secure person.
PP: You’ve said it was like someone else taking photographs.
CR: It’s so hard to explain. It was kind of a compulsion, so I guess it sort of feels like the illness took the pictures. But at the same time, looking back, I know it was part of me too, which makes sense considering the illness will always be a part of me, healthy or not. I just wasn’t with it enough to know what was really happening or to make logical decisions which makes me feel like it was completely out of my control.
PP: Do words (in this interview) or images (in the book) manage to reflect the emotion and psychology of the time?
CR: I don’t think it would be possible for me to convey what it felt like any better than with the photographs in the book.
The photographs in Back To Me are a true moment captured in an unreal time. I’ve never expressed myself or the illness in such a pure way. Even though there was stuff you don’t see happening in the time surrounding the pictures, I believe that each one encompasses how it felt as a whole.
PP: You say you’re grateful for the episode. It seems like it was a learning experience. Is this a fair characterization? Are the photographs key to that? In other words, are the photographs a valuable product from a less than ideal time? Would your view of that time be different if you had made no photographs and you had no book?
CR: Photographing this time in my life helped me more than anything else. I can’t imagine living through that without visual proof of it. It all felt so unreal that I wouldn’t know what to believe without them. I would feel so lost. It’s hard sometimes for me to look at the book because I can feel everything again. But it’s good for me. I know I don’t want to go there again because of it. I’m thankful because in the end, the pictures really have brought me to a better, more stable and aware place.
The book Back To Me is one of the most important things I have ever done. It is proof that I have an illness that I have to take care of. It is proof that I can get through it. It is a definite end to a crazy chapter in my life.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
CR: Many people think mental illness is a relentless hard slog against challenges that are unrewarding. But to the contrary, I feel that bipolar disorder has brought more positivity to my life than negativity. It has been hard, but it has made me a stronger, more accepting and maybe a more interesting person.
PP: Thanks Christina.
CR: Thank you, Pete.
Colin Pantall says, “Straylight, a publisher which makes direct books with direct themes. Straylight is kind of rough and ready but it hits the spot and is much more than a decorative publisher. It makes books about things that matter. And it publishes people who don’t get published elsewhere.”
Timothy Archibald says, “A quiet story, told in your ear. Not sad, not tragic at first glance. No high drama. It feels like introspection. Just the data, shared by the storyteller as if it happened to someone else. Rich with color, rich with grain, warm and tangible- not like you are drugged, but just like you are very tired, but your senses are working overtime.”