Hesitating Beauty

Photo essay for The Ones We Love. Photography by Joshua Lutz.


When you have watched someone crumble from mental illness, seen them unravel at the seams, witnessed a life shrivel up or slip away, it becomes difficult not to fear that it could happen to you. The particular uncertainty, the expectation of madness, the mistrust of your own mind can become a noose almost as choking as mental illness itself. The lack of knowledge around mental illness and its causes can create cracks and chasms even in robust minds, turning them into fertile breeding grounds for fear. Questions are endless and circular and answers seem as unreliable as mirages.


I grew up with mental illness in my family. So do most people, as one in four humans is considered mentally ill at some point in their lives. So did Joshua Lutz, whose mother suffered from schizophrenia throughout her life, and throughout his, until her death. With his heart-aching series Hesitating Beauty, he invites us into the cracks and chasms of a family shaped by mental illness.


The intimacy with which he ushers us into his complex and emotional perception of his mother is as unsettling as it is important. He asks us to stand face to face with the madness, to stare into the eyes of despair, to nestle into the breast of longing. Lutz asks us to love, fear, wonder, and resent the whole chaotic storm. His mother was much more than just schizophrenic, as he is careful to have us understand; she was hopes and dreams, fantasies and joy, yearning and sorrow. She was human. And she was his mother.


The series is a fistful of shards from a shattered family, carefully laid together to reflect and refract Lutz’s own ideas, judgments, and fears of mental illness through his mother, or more precisely, through his perception of her. He uses old family photographs, fragments of imagined letters between his parents, staged scenes, and seemingly unrelated objects to tell a fractured tale of a family splintered by depression, and its attempts to heal. Lutz takes us from mind to mind. Whereas sometimes he leads us through the paranoid reconstructed thoughts of his mother, other photos depict his own childhood mind as he witnesses her unpredictable behavior. Further images reveal a fantasy of the ‘normal’ life he projects onto her.


Hesitating Beauty doesn’t offer catharsis. In contrast, the series exposes and illuminates the shadows cast over a family affected by mental illness. However, it is not all darkness; moments of tenderness, love, and hope glint in the corners and pulse from under thick clouds of anxiety and pain. What is real and what is fabricated is literally impossible to say, and that is precisely the point. Lutz takes us on a journey to the fringes of sanity, where everything is in question. This is a place where license plates send you messages and your own children are not who they seem. In short, this is a place where nothing is certain. We walk away from this series with the sense that the line between sane and insane may be murkier than we would like to believe and that we all tread that line. We all make up stories, push people away out of fear, and cling to fantasies. In spite of how hard we try to build a sense of stability around the chaos, uncertainty is a reality that belongs to us all.