"People Are Not Statistics"
By Labanya Maitra
“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful,” said Anthony Bourdain. “Often, though, they hurt.”
When CNN announced Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, not long after Kate Spade’s, the media once again turned the spotlight towards the country’s 10th leading cause of death – suicide. We seem to be in the grips of a suicide contagion triggered by Kate Spade, followed by Anthony Bourdain, and many others of whom we may or may not have heard.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reported that each year 44,965 Americans die by suicide. We often talk of suicides in numbers and statistics, which translates to the way laws are implemented around it. “Suicide costs the US $69 billion annually,” in combined medical and work loss costs, said AFSP. For example, most health insurance policies don’t cover therapy, which can be extremely expensive. Even the policies that do cover mental health aren’t required by law to cover the expenses in their entirety.
But, as Bourdain once said, “people are not statistics.”
Suicide isn’t an occupational hazard, or something that’s “weak” or “selfish.” The feeling of isolation and helplessness that leads to suicide is one only a fraction of the people can relate to and, hopefully, most will never experience.
“The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise,” said David Foster Wallace. “It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.”
These proverbial flames engulf the best of us. When it happens to celebrities or public figures, it makes the news. But, when it comes to normal every-day people, their voices often go unheard as they fall through the cracks. Being a photo-based magazine, we were curious to hear the stories of some of our colleagues, see what they had to say, and try to understand how they felt.
Diane Arbus, an American photographer, was known for photographing the marginalized sections of society. “I’m very little drawn to photographing people that are known or even subjects that are known,” she said. “They fascinate me when I’ve barely heard of them.”
Often referred to as the Sylvia Plath of photographer suicides, Arbus photographed people perceived as “ugly” or “deformed” – dwarfs, transgender people, circus performers, etc. She suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1971, aged 48.
“What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s….,” said Arbus. “That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.”
Pulitzer winning South African photographer, Kevin Carter covered conflicts during apartheid and ethnic conflicts in and around South Africa. A part of the Bang Bang Club, Carter was best known for his documentation of the famine in Sudan. He won a Pulitzer for his New York Times photograph of the vulture and the little girl in April, 1994.
Carter committed suicide in July, 1994, aged 33.
“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . .” read a part of his suicide note. “Of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . .”
Art Kane, who photographed the likes of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, experimented with artful and provocative photography. “Performance shots are a waste of time, they look like everyone else's,” he said. “If you want to shoot a performer, then grab them, own them, you have to own people, then twist them into what you want to say about them.” He often spoke about re-interpreting humanity, rather than documenting it.
Kane committed suicide in 1995, aged 69.
We need to live in a world where mental health isn’t stigmatized or trivialized, where life is cherished and valued. Suicide isn’t just the death of a person, it’s the loss of an entire world’s experience with that person – and the art they create every day.
“So keep your head high, keep your chin up, and most importantly, keep smiling,” said Marilyn Monroe. “Because life's a beautiful thing and there's so much to smile about.”