By Jim Colton
According to the World Health Organization, close to 40,000 Americans end their own lives every year and a half a million people are treated in emergency departments while over a million adults reported attempting suicide. It is the tenth leading cause of death in America and the second leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults in the 15-29 age range. Millions more struggle with thoughts of suicide. Globally, more than 800,000 people die each year by their own hands. The numbers are staggering.
They also estimate that almost 10% of adult Americans suffer some form of depression such as feelings of hopelessness and/or guilt and that as many as 3% suffer from major depressive disorder or clinical depression. Women are 70% more likely than men to experience depression in the course of their lifetime as a result of pregnancy, menopause and other factors but they are also more likely to seek help than men. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, married women are more likely to be depressed than unmarried women and "unhappily" married women are three times more likely to be depressed than "unhappily" married men.
Depression is involved in more than two thirds of the suicides that occur in the US. For every two homicides there are three suicides. The NIMH states that depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors. In most cases, major depressive orders require treatment....and the best way to deal with it is to recognize and accept it and then seek appropriate treatment from a doctor or mental health specialist.
Many sufferers deal with depression clinically; with medication and psychotherapy. For one person, their personal antidote came in the form of a camera. Enter Marvi Lacar. Photography became her way of, "distancing herself from her situation," and allowed her to look at herself from someone else's point of view. She began documenting her illness with photographs and a personal journal which lead to the creation of "A Journey through Avignon." This later became "A Love Story" which was the genesis behind 1in20, an Instagram and website designed for "Creative stories to de-stigmatize and educate on all issues of mental health." 1in20 is based on the statistic that, for every 20 people that attempt suicide, 1 person dies.
Lacar is a native of the Philippines. She moved to the US at the age of 15 and started her career as a photojournalist in 2004 working on assignment for clients such as Time, Newsweek, the New York Times as well as other US and international publications and organizations. Her work has been recognized by American Photography, Photo District News, and Communication Arts and in 2008 her story "A Journey through Avignon" was the winner of the Epson Award at Photo Levallois in Paris, France. She is the founder of 1in20, is married to photojournalist Ben Lowy and mom to their sons Mateo Natan and Kaleb Elias.
This week, zPhotoJournal has a candid and deeply personal conversation with the talented and courageous Marvi Lacar.
Jim Colton: Please tell us a little about your early years and how you first got interested in photography.
Marvi Lacar: I didn’t discover photography until I was older. Growing up in the Philippines, I was always surrounded by music. The variety shows that aired around lunch time were very popular. Wherever I was, whether it was at home with our sitter or at a friend’s house, even in the school cafeteria, there was always someone singing, dancing or performing a skit either on the radio, on TV or right in front of me. I had an inclination for the arts so my parents enrolled me in art classes at an early age. I remember I was either painting by myself or role playing with friends.
I grew up during the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos regime. It was a tumultuous time in Philippine history so of course people were very interested in the news because so much of their lives were affected by this rogue government. I grew up watching the news with my family which in the Philippines at that time was pretty uncensored. I saw victims of assassinations and vendettas on TV. Even at school there were a couple of drills when the rebels stormed our city. I wouldn’t say my innocence was lost but that was just the reality of growing up in the Philippines. While my daily existence wasn’t racked with violence, I was well aware of the violence around me. My dad was also a very politically outspoken man and I watched social activism put into play at an early age.
JC: Were you always interested in photography...or were there other art forms...painting, music, etc., that tickled your fancy early on?
ML: Growing up, art was always a hobby. I never took it seriously because I didn't really understand how art could play a role in social justice or change. It wasn't until my junior year as an undergrad in 1996 at the Universidad de Nebrija in Spain when I traveled across Europe and discovered the work of Sebastião Salgado that it dawned on me that one can combine social activism with art.
JC: You had a very special relationship with your father...but of the type that many people have...a bit of love/hate. Tell us a little about him...as well as your mom...and the roles they played in who you've become.
ML: I didn’t hate my dad. As a matter of fact, I adored my dad. I feared my dad, I was deeply hurt by his actions, I was disappointed by the kind of man he turned out to be towards the later part of his life, but I never hated him. In many ways he was a good father. He was a good provider, we were never for want of anything but he was also violent and angry.
He had a tough childhood. He was abused by his father and some other family members; he ran away from home, he lived in the streets as a child, and these were all demons that he grappled with as an adult. He never sought help for that trauma and the emotional burden kept getting heavier and heavier as the years went on.
At the same time, describing our relationship as “love/hate,” makes it seem so simple. He was physically abusive to my mother. I was not privy to the abuse back then as a child, but the stories I heard from her were sinister. It is irrelevant to go into the details of the past. My dad isn’t here with us anymore to tell his side of the story and my mom, well, that’s her story. Going into details is just feeding that need for the dramatic and that’s not my intent. What matters is what eventually came out of that experience and that it is productive and hopefully helpful to others.
My relationship with my mom changed significantly as I grew older. When I was younger, I was a daddy’s girl and I thought the whole mess was my mom’s fault. I thought if she loved him more, was more patient with him, he would change. The older I got, the more I realized that my mom was my dad’s redemption. She was his moral compass and I think he would have self-destructed earlier had it not been for her.
My mom, like my dad, grew up very poor. She started working when she was 8 years old so she’s really hardy and nothing fazes her. When she found out she had cancer in 2011, it was as if she had a cyst taken out. It was such a nonevent to her. She got the diagnosis, requested a mastectomy over a lumpectomy, came back a few days after surgery, and was up and about bathing and cooking after a few days. I’m not sure if she allows herself to process many things but maybe that’s how she is able to cope…or maybe she doesn’t feel like she needs to cope. It is all relative after all.
JC: You did a lot of editorial work early on in both the Philippines and the US. Do you still actively do editorial work? What kind of projects or work most intrigues you now?
ML: I’ve been on hiatus from being in the field since the children were born. I take editorial work once in a while but it really has to be something that builds on what I am trying to say surrounding the issue of mental health or motherhood. I’m lucky enough to be able to make a living doing something else so I can pick and choose which editorial work I want to invest in.
JC: You are married to photographer Ben Lowy. How did the two of you meet? What's that dynamic like having two "artists" in the household?
ML: The first time I saw Ben was when I was a student at the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2003…but I didn’t approach him. There were too many people around him and I mistook him for a student. I thought, for someone who is here to learn, he sure is cocky. Then the next day, I was outside listening to a good friend of mine, Rick Loomis, speak on the “War Panel.” I was listening on the outdoor speakers so I didn’t see who was on the panel and I heard this kid. I thought his perspective was interesting but I didn’t really make much of it after that and also I didn’t catch the name.
Then a few months later I was invited by his best friend, David Holloway on AOL chat back when that was the thing. It was around 2 or 3am. Holloway and I are both insomniacs, so we ended up in this chat room with Ben who was in Iraq at that time. Everyone else left after a while and Ben and I kept on talking. I had just moved to New York, I didn’t know the crowd so I didn’t really know who he was. I said something like, “Whoever you think you are…I’m pretty sure the myth is bigger than the man.”
Maybe that’s what he needed to hear at that time because apparently it did not deter him. He asked me out on the one day that he was in New York when he came back from Iraq on his way to Haiti. It wasn’t until I actually saw him that I pieced the events together. I didn’t realize that the person I avoided at Eddie Adams was the person I was chatting with on IM. It was one of those moments when I didn’t know whether to turn around and bolt or just face it. Then he saw me so it would have been rude. After we talked a bit more, I realized he was the same kid who I heard on the war panel. I didn’t think that meeting was particularly phenomenal. It didn’t stand out for me.
He left for Haiti, but for some odd reason, this Baader Meinhof phenomenon ensued. All of a sudden his name kept getting mentioned. Even the guy I was seeing at that time said, “Hey you should meet this kid, Ben Lowy." The day he came back from Haiti, he called me back and asked me out. I didn’t really know what to make of it. Remember, I was new to New York, I was having fun, I just started as a photographer and the possibilities were endless. The last thing on my mind was being in a serious relationship.
Even when we started dating we kept telling each other, this is pretty casual right? Then when we got married we were pretty nonchalant about it. We went to the courthouse and had cake at Union Square while I shot an assignment in the area. We didn’t plan a lot of things. It’s hilarious because it shouldn’t have worked out. Reason should triumph, I would think. Everyone had good reason to believe that Ben and I, at that point in our lives, just shouldn’t have worked out. Even Holloway thought it would be like watching a train wreck.
It can be exciting and frustrating. We’re both very strong willed in general but usually when it comes to anything other than our work, someone concedes and the argument ends. When it comes to the work though, all Hell breaks loose! When I edited 10 years’ worth of his work for his corporate and advertising portfolio, it took a year and lots of heated arguments. It’s laughable now that it is done…but it wasn’t pretty.
Before our children went to school full time, I was home with them and I resented Ben. There were times I resented being a woman. I wanted to do it all, be a fully present parent, supportive wife, capable business partner and also be active in the field. The realization that I couldn’t do those things was hard to swallow. I haven’t given up on being able to do it all. I have a feeling that it can happen…just not when the children are so young. Unless of course one is independently wealthy or lives with a big family…then maybe that can happen but I really don’t know. I haven’t cracked that one yet.
JC: As a mother of two young boys, how do you balance wearing the mom hat and the work hat?
ML: I didn’t. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I was able to do it all. I had two kids at home and a husband who traveled often. I didn’t have family nearby and I had to manage the business. If you ask me how I did it, I couldn’t tell you. The first three years were a blur. I honestly don’t remember much. I think I was pretty much on autopilot. I was operating with the most basic goal; keep the kids alive and make sure we don’t go bankrupt!
JC: After your father's death in 2008, you fell into a state of clinical depression which included hospitalization. Looking back, can you talk a little about your state of mind at the time, how you dealt with it and what you learned from that experience?
ML: I can only describe it as a haze. It’s as if there was a thin layer of translucent material that covered my brain and nothing seemed quite crisp. I remember only being able to focus on one of my senses at any given time. For example, if I was in the shower, I would end up focusing on the droplets of water falling off my hair. I barely noticed what the water felt like on my skin or heard the water running or see anything in my periphery. It felt like the kind of fog that I had when my first son was born. It was tunnel vision and sleep deprivation mixed in with anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable).
There was a total disconnect between how my brain processed anything and what my senses detected. For example, I would smell home cooking and I would remember my childhood but that feeling of nostalgia was absent. Ben would kiss me…I could feel his lips on mine…I could observe his passion…but nothing registered for me emotionally. Even though I knew I must have loved this man, there was no emotional proof that it existed. I just didn’t feel anything.
I’ve heard friends call it “numbness," but it felt more hopeless than that. It didn’t feel fleeting. I thought I would end up living the rest of my life feeling dead. I began to cut myself. Because the pain made me feel…and feeling something…anything…was proof to me that I was still alive in more ways than just breathing. (To hear Marvi Lacar talk about cutting, see link below)
JC: What role did photography play in your healing process?
ML: Photography was a way for me to distance myself from the situation, emotionally disconnect and process the scene purely from a cerebral standpoint. It allowed me to look at myself from someone else's perspective.
JC: How did Ben deal with this situation, especially with his work load?
ML: Ben actually stopped working for a while. He just stayed home to take care of me. When I was in the hospital he was definitely home. He lost quite a few jobs because of that but he was adamant about not leaving town. My mom eventually came to help him and that made a significant difference. Looking back, I’m sure it was a very lonely time for Ben. I don’t think he really talked to anyone about it. He shouldered the weight of that situation all by himself.
Ben has always been able to put himself in my shoes. He's probably the least judgmental and most forgiving person I know. And he has a high threshold for pain which I suppose helped when our relationship was rocky.
JC: Did you have a diary/journal that you kept during that time and did its contents turn into "A Journey through Avignon," that is on your website? (See link below)
ML: I had a box of mementos where I stashed my journal, my hospital tags, notes that I scribbled on loose paper, drawings, old photos of my dad and me as a child…I just ended up gathering anything that gave meaning to me. The journal and the photos turned into “A Journey through Avignon” which was titled that year when I was in the thick of it. After some distance, I was able to look at the story and realized that it wasn’t a story about depression so much as it was about the relationship that I had with Ben. I opted for “This is a Love Story.”
Maybe someday I’ll compile both chapters into one big body of work or maybe I’ll wait for my kids to piece together the puzzle after I’m long gone. I set up email accounts for them when they were born. Once in a while I write to them. I’ll hand them the password when they’re ready…or maybe when I’m ready. I don’t necessarily think of my pictures or journals as “bodies of work" in that way; more like musings.
JC: It took a lot of courage to publish something this personal. Was it a cathartic experience?
ML: I wouldn’t call it courage. I do understand why some people consider it brave but I don’t feel like I had this daunting future to face if I opened up. I didn’t have anything to lose for being honest. My family was supportive during my recovery process. My friends (the ones who mattered at least) never left my side, and I didn’t have a job where talking about my illness caused me to be professionally ostracized. If there were judgments, they came from people whose opinion didn’t affect me so I can’t say it was courageous. It was cathartic though.
JC: A very positive result of this experience was the recent creation of 1in20. (See links below) Please tell us a little about that. What have been some of the early responses?
ML: 1in20 is an extension of “This is a Love Story.” It evolved after I compiled my photos and journal and showed it to friends in group therapy. After Robin Williams’ death it seemed like everyone was coming out with a personal story. That was when I realized that this was not just my story to tell but everyone’s.
For every twenty or so individuals who attempt suicide, one person dies. There is a range of diagnoses that fall under mental illness and there are a great number of people who are affected…sufferers, loved ones, caregivers, etc. So why not open the conversation where we can talk about mental health in a safe place and in a manner that is relatable and accessible. This is the reason why art and social media are the most important components of 1in20.
We would like to democratize the conversation through social media and allow people to convey their stories in a medium that they are most comfortable in. People can talk about their experiences through text, photos, painting, drawing…some even submitted songs. One viewer said that seeing the images made her feel like she “belonged.” Currently I’m collaborating with a runner who uses exercise as a form of therapy, and I'm trying to envision how to translate her point of view into some form we can upload on Instagram.
JC: Are there plans to create a website or e-book on this project?
ML: We have the basic structure of the website up and running. We wanted something up since it was easier to explain to potential contributors what we do by showing them. We are tweaking it as we go.
JC: This past Veteran's Day you had a project inviting veterans to participate on the 1in20 site. Please tell us a little about that.
ML: 1in20 is versatile. Anyone or any group can talk about their mental well being. We thought Veterans Day was a great opportunity for people who were affected by the war to open up about their experiences during and after the war and soldiers as well as their friends and family contributed.
JC: What words of encouragement can you offer to someone who might be going through a similar experience dealing with depression?
ML: Ahh, anything I would say would most likely sound like platitudes. I’m not really sure if there is a one size fits all encouragement for someone dealing with depression and I’m sure they’ve probably heard it all. If there is something that I would want to say, I would most likely direct it to those who know someone with depression. Be there to listen and try not to judge.
Saying things like “Snap out of it!” “Think of how lucky you are!” “Other people have it worse than you!” “You’re being selfish, think about your family!” Those words are in no way helpful.
If there is anyone who understands how hard other people’s lives can be, it’s probably that person. Most likely they’re already trying to put things in perspective and don’t understand why they still feel the way they feel. When I was in the throes, I truly believed my family was better off without me. Now I understand that those thoughts were distorted…but back then, no one could convince me otherwise.
Depression is an illness. It is not something one can snap out of. Suffering from depression is not indicative of someone’s emotional fortitude. I’m not saying be passive about your approach either. If you as a friend or family member have the emotional bandwidth to be more than a shoulder to cry on, do it. Help your friend or family look for the right therapist, get them out of bed and drive them to their session. Answer their call. I once had a contributor say that the night she planned on taking her life, she called a friend first. She didn’t think her friend would answer because it was late. Her friend picked up the phone. She’s still alive to tell that story.
JC: Do you have any final thoughts about the project, photography or life in general that you'd like to share with our readers?
ML: I’ll share an excerpt from a book that my brother gave me when I left for the US. He handed it to me printed on a 2”x3” card and I’ve carried it in my wallet since I was fourteen;
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them -- words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than that, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” ― Stephen King, Different Seasons
It seems lonely but it doesn’t have to be. I am here because a number of very empathetic people were willing to be my “understanding ear.” I’m paying it forward with 1in20. We now have a brilliant and dedicated team passionate about the mission of 1in20 and we hope that those affected will continue the chain and help us build a community.
Marvi Lacar website: http://www.marvi.net/
Marvi Lacar on cutting: https://soundcloud.com/1in20/marvi-on-cutting/s-zhz1z
1in20 website: http://www.oneintwenty.org/
1in20 on Instagram: http://instagram.com/1in20
1in20 on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/1in20
1in20 on Twitter: @1in20
Marvi Lacar on Instagram: @bonetiredmama
Marvi Lacar on Twitter: @marvilacar
National Institute of Mental Health on Depression: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
National Suicide Prevention website: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM