Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is in crisis, there's help out there. Talk to someone at the San Francisco Suicide Prevention hotline at 415-781-0500 or chat with volunteers online at sfsuicide.org.
Donna J. Wan is a Bay Area photographer whose "Death Wooed Us" project catalogues places where people have taken their own lives and the views that may have been the last things these people saw. Wan writes in her description of "Death Wooed Us" that she is sensitive to the unique and highly personal nature of suicide and stresses that she does not mean to romanticize or glorify it in any way. Wan was kind enough to answer a few questions about her haunting and elegant photos.
How did you find the locations?
The Golden Gate Bridge is such a “popular” location, being one of the top suicide destination locations in world. There are actually a number of websites that compile a list of top suicide locations, some of them rather creepily and insensitively presented.
For the other Bay Area locations, I researched local news websites reporting on suicides in the area. Some of them mention the name of the victim; others have chosen to keep this information confidential.
I also took some photographs in Taos, Seattle, and Pasadena but I chose to omit those photographs. The “look and feel” of these locations is very different from the Bay Area ones and, being in these locations for only day or two, I didn't feel I did these places or the people who died there justice. I don't want to “helicopter in” to take photos of these areas and then rush out.
Did you find being at the locations to be emotional or even overwhelming?
I had a mix of reactions. With the Golden Gate Bridge, it was sometimes distracting with all the tourists milling about. And the vast number of people who have jumped from the bridge felt, ironically, less personal and like more of a statistic. But once I thought about the individual stories behind those who jumped, it became more emotional. Those stories really are tragic.
The other places I photographed, such as the Dumbarton Bridge or Stinson Beach, were more emotional because I learned more about the individuals who decided to take their lives there – because there were far fewer than the Golden Gate Bridge. It's hard to walk down the bridge or the paths these people might have taken and not think about why they chose those places, what they were thinking and what they might have seen.
Were the locations hard to get to? Which were challenging and why?
Getting to the Golden Gate Bridge was easy – except for the bicycle only side. To get to that side, I had to familiarize myself with riding a bike again after 14 years.
For the other places, it was more of a trek. For the Stinson Beach location, the newspaper reported the precise address of the site where the man hanged himself. It was within a gated community, so I couldn't get near the exact tree he used, but I felt I could approximate the views that he might have seen.
There was one beach, Red Rock Beach, near Stinson Beach that was more challenging, as there was a steep climb to get down to the beach. It was covered in poison oak, so I had to be careful walking down the trail – and I am not a hiker. Once there, there were a number of paths the person could have chosen to take. One of those was to climb on top a tall and slippery rock, which was very uncomfortable and frightening to me.
Have you gotten any notable feedback from people who have interacted with suicide?
When I've shown this work to people one-and-one, many have responded by telling me about a relative or close friend who committed suicide. Honestly, I was afraid that I would turn off a lot of people with the uncomfortable subject matter, but, by and large, it has been the opposite. I think it opens a door for them to talk about the difficult experiences they have personally gone through as the survivors of those who committed suicide. I think it has also given them a chance to reflect on the pain of the person who died.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about this project?
Some people feel anger towards those who've killed themselves, calling it a selfish act because of the devastation they've inflicted on the survivors. I have certainly felt that way myself, having witnessed the pain and trauma felt by those close to me who have lost their own loved ones to suicide. The aftermath caused by suicide is truly horrific and heart-breaking.
But there is another side to the story that is sometimes overlooked in all the anger – the acute and implacable pain that led these people to decide to take their own lives in the first place. These people were so desperate to end their pain that they believed that the only way to find relief was to jump from a bridge, hang him/herself, shoot him/herself, or swallow poison. Having been on the brink of suicide myself, I can relate to feeling a despair so great that it blots out all rational thought. But how and where people choose to do it is a personal choice.
For me, the coast off of Highway 1 seemed, at the time, a beautiful and peaceful place to be at the end. I didn't understand then that there were others like me who wanted to be surrounded by the splendor of a beautiful landscape when they die, and it was actually shocking and disturbing to find out just how many others there have been.
I think this project, to some extent, has also been about trying to find a way to understand what happened to me during those difficult months. By walking along the paths that these others took and looking around at, and imagining, what they might have seen, I think I am also trying to figure out what was going on in my mind during that period of my life. I definitely don't want to relive it but I find that I can't really escape it either.