Why This Latina Created a Photo Project on Mental Illness in Communities of Color

Dior Vargas

Some might dismiss the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project as basic and simplistic, but they couldn’t be more wrong. While the action – creating a sign, taking a photo and emailing it to me – is undemanding and accessible to most able-bodied people, there’s nothing easy about what the participants are doing. In a culture that treats mental health as taboo, it takes an immensely courageous person to publicly and unapologetically publish their medical chart. They are risking family disputes, job loss and Internet harassment. It’s the bravery of people like them who will ultimately help break the stigma around mental illness in our communities.

As a Latina feminist mental health activist, I recognize the larger systems of racism, capitalism and sexism that can contribute to mental illness. I also acknowledge that these structures intersect with ableism in a way that can, and many times does, negatively impact our recovery. In fact, I see my project as something akin to the consciousness-raising that took place during the women’s liberation movement. These feminists created a space by women and for women, where they shared tales and struggles from their personal lives and drew conclusions about their political roots. We, too, have created an environment by people of color and for people of color. This is important. We have to feel like we are in a safe space in order for us to speak freely. If we feel like we have to defend ourselves, then we’re going to censor ourselves, and that will impede our recovery.

Not everyone thinks like me. Since the start of my project, I have received some backlash. People – mostly, though not all, white – questioned the necessity of the project. They told me that mental illness does not discriminate. My reply? Duh, of course. But people discriminate, and it’s this racialized discrimination and oppression that can lead to mental illness and can also hinder our recovery.

But it hasn’t all been bad. In fact, the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project has exceeded all of my expectations. I honestly did not see this project being circulated further than my closest friends. But it has received support from celebrities like Kid Cudi and politicians like New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray. The project has taken me to college classrooms, conferences and the White House, where I received the Champion of Change for Disability Advocacy Across Generations award in 2015. Its success showed me that I wasn’t the only one hungry for these representations and conversations, motivating me to do more with it. For instance, I plan to publish a photo book based on the project, and I’m already in the process of creating an anthology that allows participants to share their stories in more detail. The photo project, however, is always accepting submissions. There’s no deadline because there’s no end date to someone's mental health journey. I want to be cognizant of people’s recovery, and allow them to contribute whenever they feel ready and safe.  

PLUS: Woman Crush(ing the Patriarchy) Wednesday: Dior Vargas 

The project has also been prosperous for me on a personal level. This work, the way it's resonated with others and helped them through their recovery, has been so encouraging. Since the last time I was hospitalized, I've been looking for an explanation as to why I didn't die. This is it. This is the reason I'm still here; it's why I continue to live a life with purpose. And it's only the beginning.