Christina Riley

Christina Riley’s Back to Me is a raw look at the use of photography to bring oneself back from the brink of mental illness. Published by Straylight Press (buy here) — and on its second edition — Christina’s work documents the quiet and contemplative moments amongst the mania and madness of bipolar disorder.

“In 2011, I lost my mind.

Somewhere beneath the world we all know, was mine. With reality removed, I stepped forward. Into a dream. There was no self, there was nothing else.”

The images in Back to Me are often grainy and have a raw feel to them — was this a deliberate choice in terms of format/aesthetic?
When I shot Back to Me, I remember just having a gut feeling that the grain was working best to convey the actual emotions and space I was experiencing. I didn’t question it at all. Something about the imperfections and weird color cast really matched the dreamlike, disconnected state I was in.

How did you feel about initially sharing such a personal project? And how do you feel about the work now that some time has passed?
I never really felt hesitant to share the photographs with the world. I think it’s important for people to see, understand and possibly be able to relate to the reality of mental illness as a real human experience. It annoys me when people are guarded and scared to show true colors of life. I think it was important to share and I’m still happy with my decision. I still feel really emotionally attached to the work, of course.

What drew you to producing the work in a book format?
Shortly after the worst of the episode was over my friend/mentor Tony Fouhse who founded and runs Straylight Press offered to publish a book for me. Not just because we are close, but because he really believed in the photographs. I was sharing them on an blog with some poetry as it was all happening so he was able to see them develop there. He was a huge help with making the book. Straylight Press is so great. Not just saying that because of my relationship with Tony, but what they put out is work that people should see. Might be some stuff certain people don’t want to see, but it’s real and important and it should be looked at.

Was there any therapeutic benefit of documenting this episode in your life?
I was so lost in my own world. The camera was like a line to reality – not enough really to pull me out of my insanity but I just knew it was something I had to do. It almost felt like a part of my body. I actually remember looking at the camera and thinking of it as a person sort of, watching me. In hindsight, having the photographs and making the book really made me face my illness and know it is actually real and dangerous and something I have to take care of. It was extremely hard to look at the pictures after but by doing that and sequencing them into a book, I was able to process everything that happened. It felt like a real end.

What kind of reactions have you had from Back to me? Have others reached out to talk about their own difficulties with mental health?
The reactions I’ve had from ‘Back to Me’ have meant so much to me. People have written me saying that it helped them feel understood or not alone, people have told me also that it made them cry. I had a conversation with someone who actually told me their friend committed suicide at one of the spots pictured in my book, and he told me he was happy I got through my episode ok. The positive feedback from other photographers and artists who I respect has been really nice and encouraging as well. I think putting myself out there so honestly, really set me free.

In your video interview you speak about the need to create these images almost as a compulsion. Does this compulsion still exist within your approach to photography and if so, how?
I think there has always been a compulsion within me, wether its taking pictures or making music. I just feel like I can’t help what I do when I’m doing it. When I am not doing it, I obsess over not doing it, and feel really crappy, wanting so bad to do it. It’s a vicious and frustrating cycle, but when I am able to get in a steady rhythm with the compulsiveness, things really happen. With Back to Me, it was a little different because I really felt everything so much more intensely, there were no questions or distractions at all in my brain or life. I was hyper focused.

What kind of projects are you focusing on now and in the future?
Right now I’m mostly focusing both physically and photographically on my relationship with my daughter who is 1.5 years old. From early on in my pregnancy I decided to photograph myself, and the way I saw the world as I dealt with an unplanned pregnancy. Since my daughter was born, the project has continued on, basically just documenting myself and life as I navigate through something I never planned on becoming. It has opened my eyes and my heart for sure. A side from that just a couple other ongoing projects I try to add to at least once a year. Music also takes up a lot of my time. There’s never, ever nothing to do!

You can pick up a copy of Back to Me via Straylight Press.