The photographer captures the human faces of America's male suicide crisis while confronting the socio-economic factors behind it
Kingston is stretched out on his couch, face to its back, pressing the fabric with one hand. You can see housing projects out the window through the off-kilter blinds. He’s a trans single father sharing this apartment with a single mother, in the Bronx. Jacob has a tattoo reading ‘Boys do cry’; the closed blinds in the photograph are his, he keeps them drawn all day.
The blinds are emblematic of Georgie Wileman’s Suicide and Depression in Men photo essay. The series comprises portraits of 11 men who are coping with depression and suicidal thoughts, who Wileman shot over an eight-month period. The pictures bring us into their homes, the inner spots where much coping transpires. The reason for these images: in the US, men kill themselves three times more than do women, and the suicide rate has reached a 20-year high at 48,000 deaths by suicide annually. Yet Americans can’t seem to bring these men into our collective vision.
Part of the confusion is this: Nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in the US are suicides. Women attempt suicide in greater numbers, but often with pills, which allows them time to change their minds or otherwise survive. Men tend to own more guns and use them on themselves. Fast and fatal. Another paradox is that the suicide rate is highest for older white men—in the US in 2018, white males accounted for 69.67% of suicides. In our response to the often counterintuitive relationship between a group’s socio-economic status and suicide rates, we lose sight of those men with depression and suicidal thoughts whose suffering is terribly compounded by economic hardship. Several of the men in Wileman’s photographs have sought professional help and come up against financial limitations, often because they don’t have health insurance.
Wileman is candid about her own longstanding depression. For the shoot, she encouraged the men to think of the rituals of their hours of distress, and felt a sense of connection when the men’s gestures of sorrow matched her own; like grabbing of fabric, perhaps clothes, sheets, or a curtain.
Wileman develops the stripes of light in her images as if they were prison bars, showing the intangible forces that cage us. Graham, whose portrait is coupled with his military school photograph, wears his bracelets as bindings, along this same symbolic theme of emotional prison. Graham is among those who would get help if he had the resources. All of these photos hold us close, show one man holding on. One of the most striking things about these pictures is the atmosphere of scarcity—economic, emotional—around these men, but also their abundant beauty. Even here, at the far end of misery. In seeing, we learn to see.
This story was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.