UNTOLD Provides Safe Space for Students to Share Mental Struggles


Story is a powerful force. Early man believed that words were magic, and as language developed the true magic of words came in the form of the stories of the men and women who came before us. We have learned from their hardships, struggles, and joys as the tales of their lives became our history. But we have, in this age of technology, forgotten how to listen to others’ stories. And others simply do not allow themselves to share their knowledge and the sometimes painful experiences that brought them wisdom. Karen Shayne and Lorna Dancy have found a way to merge the power of photography with the depth of words in their new book, “UNTOLD: The Campus Diaries”.


The story of Shayne and Dancy has its own sort of magic. It is the story of two women, one in Brentwood, Tennessee, and the other in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada who were brought together by a friend who knew they were meant to work together. During their first phone conversation, they found they shared a desire to connect with people and allow them to share their truths of tough life experiences in safe spaces. From their work together came UNTOLD.

“I’ve been doing this work for eight years,” said Dancy. “I photographed families, but I wanted something more…I realized during the photo sessions that I learned more about the people than I did photography.  I saw the mothers in the families work hard to create a photo of a world that didn’t exist. The kids were running around. The husband was on the phone. And the mother was struggling to bring them all together to get that perfect photo. I realized I wanted to showcase what was happening behind the scenes, which was more than a pretty picture. Out of these sessions came the MOM Project.”

Dancy captured mothers at their most vulnerable and gathered their stories as she worked on the MOM Project. That evolved into the SCARS Project. Her work began to gain traction in the media. From there she began a project with cancer survivors and that is how she met Karen Shayne.

“I worked in healthcare for 24 years,” explained Shayne, “and I am a cancer survivor. I became interested in gathering the stories of cancer survivors after they are found cancer-free. I had been collecting cancer survivor stories from all over the world when I met Rain. She is who brought Lorna and I together. I found that Lorna’s passions are my passions.”

Both women hope that the provocative, yet inspiring stories they have collected and the accompanying photographs can be the inspiration to bring change in their corner of the world. The stories are lived experiences that resonate in one way or another, not only raising awareness but building bridges and inviting a sense of unity among communities to inspire hope and healing.

They have collected stories about moms, cancer survivors, the homeless, and those who are scarred in many ways, both in body and in mind. During their time working together, they have been able to have an intern from Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). It was one of their interns that asked if they had ever thought about collecting stories of youth struggling with mental health issues on campus, especially in light of the early days of the pandemic. From that inquiry, “UNTOLD: The Campus Diaries” was born.

Due to the pandemic, they knew that they would need to collect the campus stories virtually. And they also wanted the stories to be anonymous so the tellers would feel totally safe sharing their very private struggles. When they began, Shayne reached out to local colleges and universities via contacts she made while going through Leadership Middle Tennessee. They decided to begin at MTSU. They thought it would be a slow process, but they swiftly received 50 submissions. Then stories began coming from other schools — in Florida, Vermont, and Canada.

“We received stories that were amazing,” said Shayne, “but we lacked the power of Lorna’s photography.” They chose some of their most powerful stories and used real people, not professional models, as subjects to highlight the stories in some candid and some planned shots. They put the two together to create two books, the 188-page coffee table version of “UNTOLD: The Campus Diaries” and a second six by nine-inch version that is 100 pages long and more like a journal.

As the UNTOLD website explains why they chose the journal format for the student version, “For anyone dealing with stress, the first step to start journaling is accepting your feelings. This paperback allows the student the opportunity to write down whatever they feel and ask the questions they need to ask for them to serve their mental health needs and process their life on today’s college campuses.”

The book has grown into an exhibit, a documentary, and a podcast. The exhibit has already traveled to several college campuses. The documentary and podcast series will hit in the fall of 2022.

Already they are hearing people say that they wish they had had something similar when they were in school. It would have made it so much easier.

“I wish we could do round tables,” said Dancy. “We don’t do enough listening. With “UNTOLD Stories” we hope to bring back conversation through reading and seeing the stories of others.”

“We hold so much inside because of the judgment of others,” said Shayne. “But, no matter where you are, we have a human connection. If we could just escape from fear and hate, and find compassion instead of judgment, what a world we would have.”

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