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Christina Riley 'Back To Me'

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.

Riley writes:

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

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'


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.

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'

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.

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'

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.

Without Straylight Press / Tony Fouhse, I feel my voice – my experience, which I believe so many people can relate to, would be lost.

PP: Thanks Christina.

CR: Thank you, Pete.

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'


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.”


Christina Riley is a Canadian photographer living in California. She makes music with Burnt Palms.

Back To Me is available through Straylight Press.

The Fault Lines programme on English Al-Jazeera looks at America’s aging prison population. Reporter Josh Rushing gets exclusive access across the US, but the most astounding footage is from the Geriatric Unit of the Joseph Harp Correction Center, Lexington, Oklahoma.

Fault Lines also visits the Mabel Bassett Correction Center, Oklahoma’s largest women’s prison.


* At the time of filming, Oklahoma’s prison system was operating at 75% staffing, referred to by administration as “warehouse mode”; housing but not rehabilitating prisoners.

* Check out Sherman Parker’s situation beginning at 9.38. Sherman is 100 years old. He is cared for by Seth Anderson, another inmate convicted for kidnap and drug and weapon possession. Anderson speaks frankly about the hospice care at the Dick Conner Correctional Center, Oklahoma.

* Prisoners over 55 years account for the fastest growing class of inmates in America.

* Only three out of every 100 inmates over 55 years return to prison after release, compared to the national average of over 60%.

* Fishkill Correctional Facility, 70 miles north of New York is the nations first purpose-built unit for the cognitively impaired. The average age is 63 and many prisoners suffer from Alzheimer’s and other conditions of dementia.


“What started out as an assignment for school has produced a piece that has changed my life and hopefully will do the same for the people that view it.”

Jenn Ackerman

“We are the surrogate mental hospitals now.”

Larry Chandler, Warden of Kentucky State Reformatory, La Grange, KY

“My students are my biggest inspiration.”

Jenn Ackerman


This year, more than 700,000 people will be released from prisons and jails in the U.S. and more than half of them suffer from some form of mental illness. (Source)

A few months ago I wrote to Jenn Ackerman, praised her Trapped project and of course offered to promote it. I wanted to get at her stories behind the images – namely do an interview. Jenn, however, is as good a promoter as she is a photographer.

The list of questions I wrote out while eating my chili-verde burrito on Wednesday are made largely redundant by her blog post “Trapped: Questions Answered”. Her photography and multimedia is so strong that it also speaks for itself. There is a painful truth in her work; more questions than answers.

I have plenty material to give you a thorough summary of Jenn’s work.



Firstly, allow me to give a run down of the current situation of mental health care provision in America’s prisons and jails.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that the number of Americans with mental illnesses incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails is disproportionately high. Almost 555,000 people with mental illness are incarcerated while fewer than 55,000 are being treated in designated mental health hospitals. That is inadequate provision.

555,000 represents, at the very least, 16% of inmate populations of state and local jails. I would contend the figure is higher – well above 20% – but this is only my personal belief.

If these numbers are not shocking enough, one must consider the pressures the prison system – in and of itself – exerts on the mental health well-being of those incarcerated by consequence of the increased reliance on solitary confinement to control populations, unqualified staff (especially in private prisons), overcrowding, institutional violence, lack of volunteer programming and engagement (in remote facilities) and the inadequate/unconstitutional general health care provided in states such as Ohio and California. California Department of Corrections has been the subject of a high profile federal lawsuit for the short comings to provide suitable care. (Incidentally, the $1.9b figure quoted in the linked article used to be $6b, until Schwarzenegger rejected it … and there is a serious threat it will be nothing if California cannot sort out its budget disaster).

In prison systems with such endemic problems, it is those who have no way to advocate for themselves who suffer most. Jails have effectively become America’s defacto mental institutions; they house a larger volume of mentally ill people than all other programs combined.

Against this backdrop, Ackerman went to work.



Prison Photography is keen to unveil the means by which photographers, anyone, can gain access to prisons to engage with the “invisibles” of society. In that spirit I quote Jenn;

How did you get access to this story?

I had done a lot of research and had decided on the story I wanted to tell when going to talk to the warden. I always feel that a an in-person visit is more beneficial. — I can better express my passion and excitement for this story. I had called a couple of prisons days before I called the Kentucky State Reformatory and to no surprise they didn’t respond to my messages. But then I came across a wing that was dedicated to mental illness in a prison. Warden Chandler answered on the second ring. This caught me off guard but got it together enough to tell him what I wanted to do. He said I had a lot of work to do before I could start on the project but that he might be interested. I sent a proposal days later and asked to come visit the reformatory to talk to him in person.

How did the warden and officials respond to the project?

I didn’t know how they would respond at first. But I also knew that the warden and everyone involved wanted this story to be told. I was very honest with everyone from the beginning. I told them that I knew that they were doing something to acknowledge mental illness in prisons which hasn’t happened in every state but that I also knew that the program was not perfect. I told them that was going to be my approach. So from the beginning they knew that I was not going to make them look bad but also wasn’t trying to say that they have the final answer to this issue. But I visited the warden the day before I published it on my site to get his reaction. He loved it and thanked me for creating an honest portrayal of the mental illness in prisons. I told him that was the best compliment I could ever get.

There can be no doubt that Jenn was lucky to find Warden Chandler who was so sympathetic to her objective and realised the importance of the project.



Jenn has explained that she spent a total of 10 weeks on the project, including 10 days of still and video shooting. Her time commitment is reflected in the comprehensive coverage. Trapped is a dark bubbling cloud of stories and troubling images that are weft with human emotion, the occasional reprieve but predominantly the collision of lives – lives that orbit tormented psyches that a punitive world of reinforced doors & service hatches cannot soothe.

Jenn’s commitment is epic. Besides the Trapped feature film, Jenn breaks the project into a series of presentations. Firstly, the In Their Corner short about the inmate watch. Secondly, In Their Minds a series of seven film shorts allowing individual inmates camera time to represent themselves. Trapped is segmented into six photography galleries; each one a captivating photo-essay in its own right. I cannot over-emphasise the sensitive depth with which Jenn has documented the incidents on the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit (CPTU) at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Jenn also provides an extended essay about her own response to the CPTU environment.



Jenn interviews for 25 minutes at Multimedia shooter. The audio is wobbly and distorted but the information is valuable. Check out from 21 mins. onward to learn of the administration’s response.

Trapped: Mental Illness Inside America’s Prisons has deservedly received acclaim from burn magazine, 100 Eyes, Verve Photo, the White House News Photographers Association (honorable mention), Inge Morath Foundation and CPoY. Jenn recently won an internship at the New York Times.

Jenn credits her students for much of her inspiration. Check out Jenn’s class website for more details.




prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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