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By including a wide range of individuals, photographer Michael Nye serves his subjects by removing their shame and celebrating their lives as human beings. (Photos by Michael Nye)

Photographer Michael Nye's exhibit allows its audience into the minds of the mentally ill

"Daddy, that lady tried to kill herself," a child at the Witte Museum said on a recent Tuesday night. To the young observer, the woman in the photo didn't look like someone who would want to kill herself. She was beautiful, and she looked head-on at the viewer, rather than hiding.

"Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness," Michael Nye's photo and audio documentary on exhibit at the Witte, enables the public to commune with the mentally ill. Most of Nye's 60 subjects - people who are suffering from, or affected by, a range of mental illnesses including eating disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia - face the camera and make eye contact with the viewer. Nye has recorded each person speaking about his or her experiences so that viewers can pick up a set of headphones and listen to the stories of the mentally ill and those close to them.


It is clear that Nye installed his space with communion in mind: The room is dark, except for an arch-shaped beam of soft light hovering over the space directly in front of each crisp, black-and-white photo. Viewers can cross the line from public museum space to the private space of each person simply by stepping into the light.

In this Nye show, as in his "Children of Children: Portraits of Teenage Parents," which opened at the Witte in 1998, each subject is clearly comfortable with the artist. Just as the very gentle, straightforward portraits in "Fine Line" reveal a certain level of ease on the part each subject, the show's recordings indicate that the subjects have a need to be candid about mental illness.


One of the individuals, Crispin, a philosophy professor who has been diagnosed with addictive behavior and obsessive-compulsive disorder, addresses the issue that everyone, in some way, could be mentally ill. "If self-control is sanity, then there are limits to the sanity of everybody. One thing we all have in common is that there are limits to our power, limits to our will." He adds that he has not always been in control of his own thinking, and "used to think this was the human condition."

While "Fine Line" educates the public about mental illness, it also enlightens the public about itself. As Jessica tells of her experience with anorexia, the audience may consider its own concerns about food, change, and the body. In Susan, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, a viewer may see her own compulsive behavior. And, in Jose's narrative about his isolated life as a schizophrenic, a viewer may identify with the longing to have "a wife ... I would give her anything she wants."


The show challenges its subjects and audience to consider what we know about mental illness - not all of it negative. Carolyn, a writing instructor who suffers from depression, says, "I know that depression is in some ways a gift because you don't go to those deep places willingly. And I have a condition that forces me to go there - and I meet the most substantive parts of myself `there`."

In providing a space where the public and the mentally ill meet, "Fine Line" simultaneously demystifies and destigmatizes mental illness. Some of Nye's subjects are homeless, yet were once upper-class, or had careers in the military. Others are professors, architects, and doctors. By including a wide range of individuals, Nye serves his subjects by removing their shame and celebrating their lives as human beings. •

Fine Line
Mental Health/Mental Illness
10am-5pm Monday, Wednesday-Saturday
Noon-5pm Sunday
10am-8pm Tuesday
Through January 11
$7 adult,
$6 senior,
$5 ages 4-11,
Free 3-9pm Tuesday
Witte Museum
3801 Broadway

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