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Illness, Instagram, Activism: Q&A with Marvi Lacar

Those of us who only knew Marvi Lacar from her work as a photojournalist—I worked with her briefly at TIME Magazine—were floored when she published This Is A Love Story (which has been partially reprised in this HuffPo piece). It was a brutally intimate journal of writing and photography about her mental breakdown in 2008, which told the story of her illness; her hospitalization; and the desperation of her husband, photojournalist Benjamin Lowy, to help her recover. Six years later, she has launched the 1in20 project on Instagram. Named after the statistic that one out of every 20 or so suicide attempts results in death, the collaborative project is part expression, part therapy, part activism. She talked to R&K about her career and what photography can do for mental illness.

Roads & Kingdoms: When did we first meet? 2005? 2006? It was the Danbury story, right?

Marvi Lacar: We met in, oh, I would have to Google that story but yes around that time.

R&K: Weird story. Volleyball and Ecuadorians. Racism. Hat City.

Lacar: 2005. I just found your email from then. I’m an email hoarder.

R&K: You were doing a lot of editorial photography then, yes?

Lacar: Yes. I was only doing editorial back then. That was all I knew. I started in the newsroom, in newspapers. I really only started my career in 2004. I wasn’t in the field that long. I pulled out in 2008 when I got sick then I had kids. Since then I’ve been behind the scenes I suppose, working with Ben and also curating for Facebook.

R&K: Why photojournalism?

Lacar: In the Philippines, we had this belief that having a mole on a certain part of your body means something… I had a mole on the bottom of my foot. Growing up everyone seemed to blame my peripatetic nature on that mole of my foot. Even as a kid, I was just out… I didn’t come home till dark. I was always dirty and sweaty… I just liked being away, exploring.

R&K: And photography was a way to feed that?

Lacar: Yes, photography was a tool. I was a visual learner. I also was decent at art. [But] my brother used to joke that my end would be “paper or plastic?”

R&K: You wrote about your illness in A Love Story in a way that was both moving and brutal. Why did you write about that experience and publish it?

Lacar: There was no intent to publish that at first. There was no intent to write that for anyone but myself. That “piece” was really my visual diary. You know how sometimes, when you’re so close to an object you fail to really see what it truly looks like? Well in 2008, I became the subject. I would study certain moments that happened or conversations that I had and I needed to take the photo or write it on a page and then look at it. It gave me a bit of distance and perspective doing it that way. Or sometimes, I wanted to see what it must have been like for Ben to see me, so I would take a picture of myself from his perspective.

R&K: Was it a part of trying to heal yourself then?

Lacar: I wouldn’t say it was a conscious effort. I’d say I did it because I stopped talking to anyone. I stopped feeling. I was pretty numb… physically and emotionally. At that point, you could slap me in the face and I would probably feel the sting but I wouldn’t wince. There were some synapses that misfired, I’m not sure what happened but I just didn’t feel anything… and the closest that I got myself to engage again, besides from cutting which was obviously very harmful… was to write or photograph. And at least I was somewhat engaged. I wouldn’t say I was in this catatonic state but it felt like I was in slow motion and my head was really foggy. Worse than the weeks or months of fogginess after my kids were born. Nothing was in focus, everything was a blur.

R&K: But creating art, even in small doses, is a sign of vitality of some kind. You’re sitting there thinking about composition on some level, giving a shit.

Lacar: Yes, but strangely enough, that was one of the few times when I didn’t really think about composition. I just wasn’t consciously thinking about it like I would if I were say on an assignment. And I didn’t give a shit in that sense… not in the sense of wanting to take a good photo. It was more: I need to say something. I’m too tired to open my mouth to explain it so, click, here’s a picture.

R&K: What was your husband’s response to being involved?

Lacar: Ben was the one who told me to document it.

One girl said the images made her feel like she belonged. I never made that kind of impact in photojournalism.

R&K: Was he part of the decision to publish as well?

Lacar: Well, he knew I was going to go live with it. I don’t remember how it happened exactly. I remember I compiled it and then showed it to my friends in group therapy. And I was taken aback by their response.

R&K: What was their reaction?

Lacar: One girl said that seeing the images made her feel like she belonged. Those were her words. And I thought, well hell, I never made that kind of impact in photojournalism. And so I told Ben. And I think it was Ben who told me about Levallois photo festival. And I just submitted the work to that. I completely forgot I submitted that work till a few months later I get this call from France and they said, you won $10,000 for the project and it was out. But I didn’t know what to do with it after that. It felt like a vanity piece.

R&K: I never saw it that way.

Lacar: I mean, I knew it was meaningful to people who connected with it. I understood that but I didn’t know what to do with it. So I sat on it forever. I thought it was going to be a book or a multimedia piece or an interactive piece or an app. There were so many iterations in my head. But it never really came together until a month ago.

R&K: So it took six years to get from A Love Story to the 1in20 project.

Lacar: Well, I also had kids. So every time I would say, I’m going to put an hour into this, someone needed to eat or be changed. And I was managing Ben’s house accounts. I still looked at it as if I would be the one reporting or telling their stories which was another wall I thought I had run into because how would you fund that and who would stay with my kids? Then I thought, well maybe it’s an app and then I met with Teru [Kuwayama] (Facebook’s Photo Community Manager), who advised that an app would be such a headache so why not use a platform that’s already available. Then about 5 people recommended I talk to Peter DiCampo who co-founded Everyday Africa and it finally came together for me. I understood that I can still do my story and everyone else’s, use a platform that is already available, and not just allow a few people to contribute but open it to everyone.

A portrait from photographer Ruddy Roye that accompanies his submission to 1in20.

R&K: Those are good angels to have on any project. At first blush, though, Instagram seems like an unlikely vehicle for 1in20. The captions are long. The stories are so intense. The image isn’t always the most important part.

Lacar: No. But I do pick images that are strong enough to make people pause or at least interest them enough to read hopefully the first line. But the entries are the most important part of it. What’s great about instagram is that it allows for video, and I have one woman I’ve been corresponding with who decided to send a song.
She sang it so beautifully that I decided it wouldn’t do it much justice to slap a photo on there, so I’ve volunteered Ben and a few friends and we’re going to make this video and post the 15 second trailer on Instagram, and the longer form on the web.

R&K: So now the Instagram is launched. Why tackle mental illness through photography?

Lacar: There’s a gap between how academics and clinicians learn about mental illness and what it truly feels like for the sufferer. There are case studies but interestingly enough, there aren’t pictures in the DSM-V. Obviously, I don’t expect it to be in comic book form, but when I myself was doing research about my own illness, I didn’t really find anything that was emotionally relatable. I found I would connect to songs, or movies, but in terms of finding something that made sense in the academic and mental health arena, none. Maybe I wasn’t researching it well enough… Part of the goal of 1in20 is to try to help connect that divide. I strongly believe that there is a place for the anecdotal stories and beyond that, they don’t have to always be in text form. For an experience that is so visceral, I think it is OK for people to describe their own emotions as passionately as they feel it and in whatever medium that they feel the most comfortable with.

From photographer Kerry Payne’s project on those who have lost loved ones to suicide, contributed to 1in20.

R&K: So how would you measure success for 1in20?

Lacar: Not monetarily that’s for sure. 1in20 would be successful when we get a lot of contributors from people of all walks of life from different countries and talk about their own experience with mental illness whether it is a genetic predisposition, from a trauma, an addiction… and from the perspective of the sufferer, the caregiver, friend, loved one.

R&K: It seems there aren’t a lot of places in social media for this kind of open introspection and outreach.

Lacar: No, I think the support groups are very specific and compartmentalized and that’s great. That has a place too. That’s how I got better. But sometimes, it’s hard to get up, get dressed and go somewhere. I also have to be conscious about making sure we are not only providing a safe space for people to share their stories but also to moderate the images and text coming in so they aren’t glorifying harmful behavior.

R&K: Has that been a challenge so far? Do you have guidelines to follow, or is it just gut feeling?

Lacar: It’s so new but I am in contact with an “expert” who is very supportive of the work and I do feel that we are headed in the direction having standardized guidelines at some point. There are followers I see who have followed certain feeds like the pro-ana ones. I didn’t want to block them because its good that they’re seeing this feed, and seeing a different perspective.

R&K: Can 1in20 help people get better?

Lacar: 1in20 is a virtual group therapy (at least that’s how I think of it).

R&K: That’s fascinating. But is there also something of an activism role, spreading awareness of the disease seems a big part, no?

Lacar: Yes of course. I want to normalize the conversation. It is an illness. People seem to feel bad when someone has heart disease but for some odd reason people expect you to snap out of it when it is the subject of mental illness. I think a huge part of it is just not understanding the beast itself.

R&K: So practically speaking, how do submissions work?

Lacar: Sometimes I just invite people who I know have a body of work already made, like Kerry Payne. Sometimes, I pair text submissions with photo submissions. Sometimes I’ll look at IM messages and email message from people who just want to talk and they’ll say something that I think is really relatable and I’ll ask them if I could use it as a submission. Sometimes I’ll translate the text into images myself, sometimes I’ll art direct and Ben gets tasked to shoot. Sometimes I’ll talk to someone for a while… someone who thinks they don’t have much to say. We have the tools to tell our stories.

R&K: You’ve said that A Love Story will be released as an ebookat some point. Is that put aside for now?

Lacar: I think Love Story is part of it. I guess I see my life as chapters. So [mental illness in] 2008 was a chapter in my life that was A Love Story. Having kids at this age is a different chapter. 1in20 is me coming to my own again, as a photographer, as a curator, independent of Ben and my kids. That’s a different chapter. And it isn’t all altruistic… obviously doing this is a big part of my own journey. I find it to be very purposeful.

R&K: To stave off relapse? Understand what happened? Both?

Lacar: For a good four years I sat on this work not knowing what to do with it, thinking my career was over, thinking I was just going to be “Ben Lowy’s wife” or “mom” and those are all identities that I can fully embrace now. But for a while I felt like I had really lost myself. And now I find that I have a balance.

Nathan Thornburgh
Nathan Thornburgh is the co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms and is a former editor and foreign correspondent at TIME Magazine.
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