It was a chilly, overcast April morning when Mia Davis marched her vegan leather black Doc Martins up to the stone steps of the academic quad in front of Franz Hall.
She was hunkering down for finals in all different shades of black. It was that time in the year where she no longer cared what she looked like. She was just a black cloud floating to class.
But she wasn’t headed to a class. She was walking towards Jesse Dunn, the founder of UP’s branch of Active Minds, a student group focused on raising awareness about and removing the stigma from mental illness. He was sitting on the steps, his back facing the sea of white tissues lying in the grass representing the 1,100 students who die from suicide each year.
To Davis, he looked tired but proud. He knew that what he had just done was important, that it stood for something bigger. She sat down on the cold concrete next to him. He scooted close to her and began to talk to her like a friend, not a near-stranger recording his every word. She had been anxiously anticipating this interview all week.
When they finished talking, she had him stand with his back to the lawn, in front of his creation. With her Canon T3i, she snapped his photo.
If you scroll down the “Humans of UP” Instagram page, you’ll find the photo of Dunn, clad in plaid pajama pants and brown loafers along with a myriad of other students and an insight into who they are and what they stand for. Davis updates the account every week with two new photos.
Now, Davis sits by a window in the quiet side of The Commons as UP’s most scenic spot overlooking The Bluff is peaking out behind her.
Davis has been asking for stories, moments and ideas of significance, from her classmates and her peers for a year now. But as she pushes her tortoiseshell glasses, which encompass nearly half her face, up against her nose, she has to brace herself in telling her own story.
She arches her back straight up against the booth and gives an ‘alright, let’s get into this’ look across the table. She shakes her dark auburn hair out of her face and begins to unravel the most challenging layers of her life.
“Let me tell you about my entire existence,” Davis says sarcastically, though her candor gives the statement a less facetious undertone.
A large part of Davis’s desire to create the photo project that has brought upon a unique connection within UP’s campus was to de-stigmatize issues such as mental illness.
Davis has been struggling with mental illness and the stigma surrounding it for her entire life.
Davis has felt anxiety symptoms since she was 7 years old. She would sit alone during lunch in elementary school as voices of negative self-talk swirled around in her head about her social shortcomings.
“From a super young age, I knew that my brain wasn’t… wasn’t super normative,” Davis says.
When she was a kid, Davis didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about mental illness the way she does now. When she would experience anxiety she called it “a buzzing” and she had “bad spots” when going through bouts of depression.
It was a challenge growing up without an understanding of what was going on inside her head. She says that she often heard phrases like “suck it up” or “why are you so upset when you have no reason to be?”
“I was emotionally neglected and that just manifested itself in further anxiety and depression.” Davis says.
She grew up in a town called Kona on the west side of the Big Island in Hawaii. Kona has beautiful sandy beaches and palm trees scattered everywhere, but for Davis, it was a dead end.
Her parents both grew up in the Midwest but have lived in Hawaii for nearly 30 years. They are both independent business owners who would never dream of leaving the island. But there was no opportunity for Davis in Hawaii. And her childhood memories are just that, memories. She wants to keep her past in her past.
Davis says her parents fought frequently as she was growing up. They’d storm off to separate rooms after a screaming match and there was a small patch of silence before they’d run back out of their hiding spots and begin to fight again.
Now, in her own home in Southeast Portland, Davis has Bob’s Burgers playing in the background at all times because she can’t stand the silence. The anxiety rooted in that lull in which she sat and waited for the fighting to pick back up again has never left her subconscious.
Davis has two younger brothers, fraternal twins, both at the precarious age of 18. But when they were little, Davis was their shield from the toughness they experienced at home.
“I know my brothers don’t remember a lot about fights within our childhood because I tried to make them not aware of it,” Davis said. “I’d be like ‘Let’s go out on a walk!’ anytime I started to hear the fighting.”
Now, Davis’ parents have separated and she feels that the whole family is better off. She says that apart, her parents are both wonderful people. Her father — who she refers to as “the cool dad” now — owns a natural stone fabrication business while her mother lives on another island renovating homes as an interior designer.
Davis’ father, Gary, says that living in a household with two twin brothers was a challenge in itself and “as a parent, you try and raise your child the best you can.”
Davis says Gary and her mother are great people, they’re just not good at parenting together.
“Their feelings always took up so much space that I didn’t have time to think of any of my own.” Davis says.
With a troubled home-life, anxiety in which she couldn’t fathom or express and the weight of untimely adult devoir, it wasn’t easy being Mia Davis. Her father says that Davis’ maturity was daunting as a child.
“Some of the things she said when she was younger and the knowledge she picked up along the way was like... wow,” Gary Davis says. “Some of the things she’d come back home with and her statements, oh my goodness, you look back at her and think ‘She’s only 10!’”
Depression truly started to take hold of Davis’ life in her early years of high school, when her grandmother died. For Davis, depression meant living with a weight on her heart that she couldn’t lift for days, which turned into months, months into years.
As a freshman in high school, Davis wasn’t able to find happiness in much of anything. She couldn’t hold on to friends because she simply had no energy or confidence to engage with others. She coped in ways like self harm and unhealthy eating patterns.
“I think that’s what made it different than sadness,” Davis says. “What I thought was a bad few days and would soon go away, instead took over my life. Everything felt a little grayer, a little more muted.”
While her depression goggles gave her a muted view of the world, Davis found a way to see color through a different lens. In her freshman year of high school, she received her first camera.
While Davis traces her passion of taking photos back to her seventh grade photography class, her father remembers things differently.
“I had a camera bag that had my S2 and a lot of different lenses and stuff like that,” Gary Davis said. “She was always interested in what was in there. When she was really young she would go to garage sales around the neighborhood and pick up these old cameras.”
Davis got her first camera as a freshman in high school, but she didn’t begin to use it to make art until she was a senior.
One of her best friends had just gone into treatment for an eating disorder — something that hit home for Davis personally because she had been dealing with unhealthy eating patterns as a result of her anxiety and depression — when she was assigned her first photo project in AP Photography. To cope, Davis made a series of self-portraits.
She took photos of each part of her body that she hated the most: close ups of her eyelashes as she had an uncontrollable tic in which she plucked them out, pictures of the acne on her chin and her braces.
“It was nice to have something that was mine, using that as a coping mechanism for myself,” Davis says. “It was important to take myself as a subject and kind of break it down- ‘Why do I not like my eyebrows? Well because you pick at them you idiot!’”
Davis scrolls through the photos on her Flickr account. She hasn’t looked at the pictures in years.
“Yeah, aww little me!,” she says. “I’m still really proud of it and it’s a good time capsule of who I was at the time.”
Sipping a homemade chai latte out of her clear mason-jar mug, Davis talks about her new camera like it’s her best friend.
“It’s my baby!” she says.
It’s a Canon 6D and she bought it last May with her tax refund. She uses a 1.4 50mm lense because it’s really good for portraits. “Those numbers mean almost nothing,” she says.
Photography was always something that Davis could keep to herself, something that made her different. Even in a sea of Portland photographers clinging to their film cameras and DSLRs, Davis says she feels the same way at UP.
“I think I’m doing something that’s a little different in the Humans of UP project,” Davis said. “That’s a nice validation to have.”
Davis’ idea to bring “Humans of New York” into UP’s campus stemmed out of her love for photographer Brandon Stanton. She’s had his first book sitting in her window sill for almost a year now.
Stanton gets into the underbelly of New York City and finds vulnerability in each of his subjects. This was something that Davis felt she could bring to UP, despite that the campus sits in “a bubble of privilege.”
“Everyone has something to say,” Davis says. “Literally everyone has something that they can dig in their brain and be like ‘this is me’.”
Davis wants to erase the stigma of talking about your feelings. She goes up to strangers with her beige notepad (she calls it her “get shit done” notebook) her phone and her camera and she asks them to tell her something personal, something they’ve been keeping inside.
“Just tell me something important,” she says. “I’ll record you and take your picture.”
Davis’ first subject for the project, starting in October of last year, was her roommate and best friend, Calloway Erickson. Erickson helped Davis in brainstorming ideas for the project. She says Davis can tell stories so well because she’s a talented empathizer.
“She can connect but she recognizes that she doesn’t know how people feel, which I think is really important,” Erickson said. “You feel with them, you don’t take their feelings from them. She gives them this base to feel and she just feels with you.”
Davis started with her friends and the project rippled from there. She has interviewed members of the Saudi Student Union before they hosted a panel on Islamophobia. She’s spoken with leaders of a variety of student groups and she’s taken the photo of Jesse Dunn, the creator and leader of Active Minds.
Davis says that Dunn’s photo was the most powerful photo she’s taken thus far. His message of destigmatizing mental illness is something that not only holds reverence within the student body, but for Davis personally.
“I just want to see people feeling more OK,” Davis says. “I want them to find something in it. It doesn’t matter what exactly they get out of it as long as it’s something positive.”
Not everything has been smooth sailing within the past three years for Davis. Last year, a boy she went to high school with died in a car crash, one of her brother’s had school-related trouble and her boyfriend of seven years left to study abroad in Munich.
Davis had been living with anxiety long enough to know that what she was feeling was more than just situational stress. She lost weight. She shut herself off from friends. She wouldn’t make it to certain classes due to anxiety attacks. Sometimes she would miss days at a time.
“It can be crippling,” Erickson said. “Especially for her, it’s a hard thing to be stuck in your head and she knows when that’s happening and she knows how to take care of herself.”
Erickson says that Davis knows when it’s time to stay at home and spend some time alone or with one other person just watching cat videos on YouTube. She knows that there are some days in which five minutes of deep breathing exercises or running on a treadmill won’t cure the deep anxiety Davis feels.
Davis believes that attending class can’t always be the number one priority for students dealing with a mental illness.
“I think a lot of students are worried about staying home to take care of their mental wellbeing for fear of professors or administration not understanding or taking them seriously,” Davis says. “That is a serious problem we need to address.”
There were a hundred different reasons for Davis to fall apart — and sometimes she did — but for the first time in her life, she was learning to put herself and her mental wellness first.
“One of the hardest things has been making time to take care of myself,” Davis says. “Noticing that academics are a huge priority but it’s not as important as making sure that you’re healthy and happy before anything or anyone else.”
Attending UP as well as working on a project like “Humans of UP” has revived positive energy into Davis’ life.
The UP junior has found her niche all over campus. She works at the digital lab in the library. She runs UP’s social media accounts for the Marketing Team – if you see a UP Instagram post you like, she’s the one to praise. She’s on the marketing committee for CPB and she runs Humans of UP.
“She’s incredible, she’s tough,” Erickson said. “I think sometimes she doesn’t give herself enough credit for how tough she is. When you’re going through things, you’re like ‘I am so bad at being a human being, like I can’t do it very well.’ But she just turned it into all these good experiences for herself.”
Despite being wildly busy, Davis is something that she hasn’t been in a long time – happy. She lives in a small pale yellow condo in Southeast Portland with her boyfriend, Elliot Jacobson.
She’s been practicing the art of cooking. She just mastered the chicken parmesan dish last week and next she’s working on making biscuits and gravy. She paints every Tuesday for two hours as a part of her fine arts curriculum (She’s a Fine Arts minor and a Organization Communications major).
Her walls are covered with photos of her friends, places she’s been and postcards from museums like the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. She has a bouquet of fresh flowers in her home at all times because nothing makes her happier than fresh flowers.
She misses her cat Pumpkin (named “because she’s round and orange,” according to Davis). She has a group chat with her brothers back in Kona — who she thinks she can be friends with now that they’re nearing on adulthood- asking them to send her pictures of the cat and giving them relationship advice.
She really wants to buy a retired racing Greyhound. She really wants Jacobson to go to law school. She wants her art to go up in a gallery in Portland some day. She wants to keep telling stories. She wants to be alive. Literally and emotionally alive. She’s happy to be alive.
As Davis leans back on the cushioned booth lining the walls of The Commons, she looks tired, but proud. Two thousand and six hundred miles away from home, she’s found strength in her vulnerabilities, she’s found a way to put herself first, she’s found a way to tell stories.