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THE SCENE/see

mixedmedia

by Darin Burt

Taken From Life

Photographer Grace June Shows the Pain, Strength and Hope in the Face of Suicides

There are 1,110 suicide deaths a year in Washington State. It’s not something that we

like to talk about. As a professional photographer, Grace June proves through her work that a picture is worth a thousand words. And with her latest project, a portrait series of people who have attempted suicide and lived, as well as families of individuals who completed suicide, she hopes to open conversations and increase awareness of this tragic issue. “Mental health is less and less acceptable to talk about in many communities, and I think one of the things that kills people is the feeling of being isolated,” says June, who has struggled with depression and repeated suicidal thoughts herself. “As an artist and photographer, I can help people to take a step in the direction of knowing that others care about them.” The Survive Project came about as a result of June’s own process of self-understanding and healing. Over a five year period, she took hundreds of self-portraits, symbolically depicting her varying states of emotion. When others saw the images, they felt a personal connection. Without directly experiencing the impact of suicide, it may be hard to picture life on the teetering balance between pain and hope. And that’s exactly what June set out to capture. The 23 portraits, which have been made into a book, along with stories behind each, reveal the essence of the individual experiences and pain, while at the same drawing a common thread between them as survivors. “It was really humbling and powerful,” June says, “that people were so willing to come forward and share their experiences, not just for themselves, but to help other people know they aren’t alone and their life matters.” As a fine art and commercial photographer, and proprietor of Grace June Imagery

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(gracejuneimagery.com), June takes advantage of modern cameras and equipment. For the Survivor portraits, she went back to basics, shooting on film rather than digital with a Mamiya 645 medium format camera and single LED light. Slow shutter speeds of between one and four seconds gave a haunting feel to the resulting black and white prints. “For what I do professionally, I try to have pristine control over the lighting and the quality of the composition. With film, it was much more unpredictable—just like the unpredictability of suicide,” June says. Multiple times since, June’s subjects have expressed to her just how much she brought out their feelings of loss and grief. It wasn’t a trick of the trade, but rather, June explains, just getting to know the individuals, and letting emotions happen naturally. “The death of someone close really sticks with a person, and that pain is often right beneath the surface,” she says. “I was really trying to record the spirit of the person, and that their pain was actually a source of strength, and not a source of utter despair. There is a lot of hope in the photos.” One of the few portraits in the series where the subject is smiling is of a Native American woman who, ironically, lost an uncle, brother, two cousins and countless friends to suicide. “Her message,” June says, “was one of hope for her life and future in a place so dark where so many people in her community are being lost to this epidemic of suicide. “The more I investigate and photograph people and get close to the topic of suicide, the more open my heart is becoming to the condition people face in the wake of a suicide or after an attempt,” June writes in her blog. “When you’re making art, coming from a place of curiosity is important,” June adds. “My goal was to just to let the image unfold and let the people show themselves. I was just basically a conduit with a light and a camera.”

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