Portland photographer Lissy Thomas stands amid her work at Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue. Her show "I Am More: Facing Stigma" looks to put a face to mental illness. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland photographer Lissy Thomas doesn’t like the term “mental illness.” She thinks it puts too much distance between those who are, and are not, currently struggling. She prefers “mental health challenge” instead.

“Because who hasn’t struggled with a mental health challenge at some point?” said Thomas.

That’s the message of her photography show, now on exhibit at Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue: You’re not alone. Everybody’s working through something.

“I Am More: Facing Stigma,” is the title of the show. It features 22 black-and-white portraits of locals affected by mental health challenges. The prints are larger than life at 40 x 27 inches. Hung higher than eye level, they look at you as much as you look at them.

Credit: Lissy Thomas | BDN

Thomas produced the work in concert with the Yellow Tulip Project. The project works with young people to smash the stigma surrounding mental illness. It encourages people to talk about mental health challenges, without shame.

[This Maine teen lost two friends this school year. Here’s how she’s putting her grief to work]

The project asked for volunteer models on its Facebook page. It didn’t take long to fill Thomas’ schedule. She shot all the portraits over two days this winter in a rented studio.

All are upper-body shots. Everyone faces the camera against a plain, gray background. None stands out from any other even though the subjects run the age, gender and racial spectrums.

That’s fitting. The formal, repeated details reinforce the message. Everyone is dealing with something. You can’t tell what it is by looking at them.

“The purpose is to make it OK for people to talk about their mental health the same way you’d talk about your physical health,” said Thomas. “It’s OK to have whatever issue you have. It doesn’t define you.”

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The pictures also make everyone look their dignified best. There are no awkward stares, no stolen private moments. Thomas’ talent for portraits sits in plain view.

“She could make a sack of potatoes look gorgeous,” said Kathy Vilnrotter, whose picture is in the show.

A list of simple statements, made by the subjects — including something about their mental health challenges — accompanies each picture.

Vilnrotter stares right at the camera in her picture. There’s no pretense, nothing hidden in shadow, no Mona Lisa smirk. Vilnrotter flashes a big, open smile, resting her hands in her front pockets.  She’s totally open but there are no hints as to what she struggles with.

Beneath her photo, the placard says: “I am Kathy. I am a friend. I am a chess advocate. I am a rock enthusiast. I am an artist. I am a survivor of post-traumatic stress. I am a peaceful warrior.”

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Vilnrotter began working with the Yellow Tulip Project after moving to Portland over a year ago. She jumped at the chance to get involved with Thomas’ work. She hopes the images will encourage people to open up and avoid what she went through.

“I struggled with PTSD for five years. I don’t anymore but it was a really, really tough time,” she said. “I isolated myself. I didn’t get to know my community. I was afraid of everybody. Instead of feeling like I could talk about it, I was more and more closed — and less and less me.”

After the show closes on Saturday, Thomas’ images will transform into a travelling show. She’s already had interest from far away places like Las vegas and Brooklyn, New York. It will hang in Bangor, probably at the library, in October.

Credit: Lissy Thomas | BDN

Thea Kastelic’s portrait hangs right next to Vilnrotter’s. Kastelic thinks Thomas’ pictures can help break mental illness stereotypes, too.

“There’s this perpetuated idea, that you have to look a certain way to have a mental illness — you have to look like a crazy person,” said Kastelic, a high school senior from Portland. “Anyone, any age, any gender, any race, any body type, any anything can have an eating disorder, or can have depression, or can have PTSD, or can have anxiety. But all these people look like people you could pass in the street. They all have something, which means you could, too.”

I Am More: Breaking Stigma is open to the public at Speedwell Projects May 10 through 12 from 12-6 p.m.

Maine Crisis Hotline, 1-888-568-1112:  A 24-hour hotline to access crisis services for a range of behavioral health crisis situations including suicide assessment and intervention help. Calls are answered by trained behavioral health clinicians located in the crisis service center closest to the caller’s location.

Maine Warm Line, 1-866-771-9276: This is a peer-staffed Intentional Warm Line operated 24 hours a day and offering telephone support for adults in non-crisis situations. Connect with trained peers who have experienced mental illness and recovery.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.