Family Portrait Day isn't typically an affair to get excited about. Awkward poses, cheesy smiles, getting scolded by Mom for not ironing your shirt–all for a photo that'll eventually get lost in the Facebook abyss.
But for the people that Susan Sabo has met, a photograph is something more. While volunteering with The Village Program of Mental Health America, the Long Beach lifestyle photographer discovered that many of those suffering from mental illness don't have a single snapshot of themselves or their loved ones.
“It blows my mind,” Sabo says. “As a photographer, I have thousands of pictures of me and my daughter. I never even think to print them out. But there are people who would give anything to have just one.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so Sabo decided to launch a project. She spent a couple days taking portraits of members of The Village, an adult recovery program in Long Beach. Many members have been diagnosed with illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD or severe depression, and have a history of homelessness or hospitalization.
“People with severe mental illness are almost invisible in their communities,” says David Pilon, the CEO of Mental Health America of Los Angeles. “Society keeps them off to the side.”
With a click of a shutter, Sabo helped bring them into the spotlight.
She set up a camera on a tripod, and held onto a remote in her pocket. Then she simply talked to them and listened as they chatted about their families and passions. “We walk past these people every day,” says Sabo, who wears a “Got Meds?” T-shirt (she herself suffers from General Anxiety Disorder). “We assume they don't do anything, don't have anything, aren't from anything. But I've met poets, artists. Everyone has a story.”
Sabo called her project “I Am The Fourth,” as one in four people struggle with mental health issues. Through ChipIn.com, she raised $3,000 to pay for printing and frames, and handed out the portraits at The Village on Wednesday.
“This is not my project,” she told the participants. “It's yours.”
Here is The Fourth:
Age: I dunno. It keeps changing every year. [Laughs] I'm 53.
Interests: My computer. Facebook. I just learned about bookmarks.
Most prized possession: My cat. Her name is She-Ow. It's pronounced, “Sheeee-owwww.” That's all she did the first day I got her. She'd cry, “Sheeee-owwwwwww.”
What makes you happy: I like making people laugh. I'd rather do that than make people cry.
Tex, aka “Tim Dawg”
Interests: I'm a rapper, like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
What you believe: If we don't preserve this earth, it won't be here.
Most prized possession: My faith. There's a better life for those chosen.
How you'd describe yourself: Outgoing, well-spoken, generous and heartfelt.
Most prized possession: My son.
What you think of your portrait: In my opinion, I look proud. I carry myself well.
Lori Murillo and Edgar Guest
Ages: 55 and 67
What makes you happy:
Lori: The stars, the sky, my kitty cat, my Lord, being sober and happy and free. And having a good partner. We've grown a lot together.
Edgar: Peace and quiet. And my wife.
Most prized possession: My heart. I have a big one.
On The Village: I've been shot, stabbed, in prison, on drugs, on the streets. But when I come here, I feel protected.
Michael Crackel (left) with his personal service coordinator Gary Barbagallo
Interests: Baseball. The Cincinnati Reds.
How you'd describe yourself: Free and easy.
Most prized possession: My TV set.
Todd Dunlap (center) and his family.
Age: 39. I'm so close to 40, I can taste it.
How you'd describe yourself: A gentle giant.
Most prized possession: My family. Things haven't always been perfect, but what family is perfect?
Words to live by: Treat others as you want to be treated. A person can be smiling at you but they can be suffering at the same time.
Learn more about the I Am The Fourth project and see more photos at Fresh. Simple. True. Susan Sabo Photography.