Suicide is a difficult topic to talk about. Most try to avoid it. Yet some of us have personally experienced despair so great that we have thought about it as an option. We have also known others who have tragically succumbed to it. In 2011 after the birth of my daughter I developed a severe case of postpartum depression and considered taking my own life. I imagined I would drive to the California coast where I could look at the magnificent ocean and then jump off a cliff. Since then I have recovered, andlearned that many suicidal people have similar inclinations: they travel near or far to well-known or obscure natural places to end their lives. Often these places are near water, mountains or valleys. There is even a term for such places – “suicide destinations.”
The photographs in this project attempt to capture the views of these settings. Using research gathered from media reports, I found several locations in the Bay Area and travelled to them. I walked along the paths taken by these people before they ended their lives. Most of these photographs were taken from bridges, including the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most well-known “suicide destinations,” but also lesser-known beaches and overlooks. I purposely photographed from the perspective of looking up at the sky, down at the water or crags, or straight ahead but far away, thinking that these views might have resembled the ones seen by others moments before dying. Many of my images have a hazy and elusive quality, which I believe reflects the clouded state of mind of the suicidal.
Yet I do not pretend to know why others really chose the specific locations that they did. Nor do I claim to know what they were truly thinking before they jumped, hanged or drowned themselves. The reason behind each suicide is highly personal and, often, an enigma to the ones left behind. But I do believe that there have been others, like me, who wanted to die surrounded by a beautiful landscape. One survivor even said there was a “certain grace and beauty” about dying from the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are some who may think that my photographs romanticize these places of death. I can understand that point of view, although that is not my intention. Death is not beautiful – in fact, jumping from a bridge 200 feet high is a very painful and violent way to die. Yet the sublimity of these places continues to lure people to them. I do not intend for my work to glorify the allure of these places. Instead, I hope that it may offer a glimpse into the minds of those who may have thought that dying by these beautiful places was a peaceful way to end their suffering. As the poet Louise Gluck wrote in her poem “Cottonmouth Country,” "Death wooed us, by water, wooed us By land…"
In the Landscape
How do people identify with the landscape? In the past, I have made pictures of the natural world that has been altered by man in some way or another – from subtle incursions to a near annihilation of it. While people were present in some of my previous work, I was concerned more with the evidence of their intervention. They were there in spirit but not in actuality. In this new body of work where people are the focus of my photographs, I investigate how they relate to, interact with, and experience the landscape.
Yet I have intentionally photographed people from behind, in shadow or at a scale where it is difficult to obtain a clear read of their faces. These “anti-portraits” are not about the individual identities of the people being portrayed but about how people “fit into” (or not) the landscapes that I have captured. For this series, I was inspired by the paintings of the 19th century German romantic landscape painter Casper David Friederich, who painted people from behind to allow the viewer to project him/herself into the scene before him/her and experience the landscape vicariously - a visual technique called “ruckenfigür.” By obscuring the identities of the people in my photographs, I am hoping to give the viewer a similar experience - to imagine themselves in these overwhelming, calming, peculiar, mundane, social or lonely depictions of the landscape. Each of us experiences the landscape in ways unique to us, and these experiences shape who we are and how we see the world around us.
Note: None of the photographs in this series were staged. I am not acquainted with any of the people represented, and I did not speak to or interact with any of them during the shooting process.
In the Snow Forest
On the Yellow Mountain
In the Ocean
At the Coast
On a Platform in the Desert
On Lava Beds
At the Edge of the Lake
At the Salt Flats
At the Picnic Table by the Lake
On an Overlook
On a Rock
In Front of a Tree
On a Beach
On a Hill (Overlooking the
At the Airstrip
By a Bush in the Desert
In the Fog
On a Cliff (Overlooking the Surf)
On Top of the Cliff
By the Bay
In and By the River
At the Gorge
This series is about perceptions of the contemporary landscape. In the 19th century, the Hudson River School painters established an idealized view of the American landscape with their highly romanticized paintings featuring towering mountains, overwhelming skies, vast fields, and endless seas. Especially with regard to the West, the landscape became a symbol for freedom, opportunity, and exploration. Today depictions of landscape often veer toward extremes – either they are of “pure” places that are untainted by human intervention or they represent locations, sometimes exotic, that have been severely comprised by industry and development. I believe that neither representation is useful because it does not reflect our reality: We live in houses, work in buildings, drive on the road, and enjoy many of the conveniences of modern life – and I don’t think we are prepared to give these up to return to an Edenic time.
Yet I think it is still possible to view the landscape in ways that take into account our hopes and dreams as well as our fears and failures. Hence, I set out to take pictures that had the potential to invoke romanticized notions of the landscape similar to the Hudson River School paintings but, when viewed more closely, also feature man’s impact on the natural world. Sometimes, the effects of modernization seem like slow and inevitable developments onto the land. Other times, urbanization appears to threaten to overtake the landscape. My intent is to question how our perceptions of the landscape have changed over the two centuries, after we have remade a considerable part of it in our image. Does the land, sea or mountain still represent places onto which we can project our hopes and desires? Or, have we become alienated from it and only respond strongly to it when we are shown images of its devastation?
Note: While I do not believe the exact location where these images were taken to be of utmost importance, it is interesting to note that nearly half of the photographs were taken outside of the United States and the West - in the “New Frontier” of Asia.