I associate the phrase “Live Through This” with Hole’s 1994 album of the same name—itself a nod to Vivien Leigh’s Gone With The Wind monologue, or perhaps Courtney Love’s own tumultuous coming of age. New York-based photographer Dese’Rae L. Stage (above) sees it instead as a mantra for those who have survived suicide attempts. In a way, “Live Through This” is a dare.
Stage’s Live Through This project is a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors. The ongoing portrait series is currently showcased as a web gallery, where a text snippet of each survivor’s attempt narrative accompanies their photo. “When paired in this way, the portraits and stories work to de-stigmatize suicide as a topic unworthy of everyday dialogue,” says Stage, via email. “And to serve as proof of life on the other side of a suicide attempt.”
The portraits are stark and sincere. Each subject looks straight into the lens, forcing the viewer to make eye contact, and to connect. Participants range in age, ethnicity, and background, not to mention their wildly diverse experiences with suicide. To some, the experience is still fresh and resounding. “Do you feel like you’re healed?” Stage asks subject Dominick Quagliata (below). “Not at all. Not in the least,” he says. “I could hit that point again where I felt hopeless...That is the one feeling that you feel is a sense of hopelessness and a sense of emptiness, that there’s a cup that can’t be filled, that there’s a hole within you that can’t be plugged back up.”
To others, it is a moment in the distant past that inevitably pivoted their lives. “The thing about the mentally ill is [that] I had never been familiar with that community until I was diagnosed and went into the hospital and realized that this is an incredibly vulnerable community that is so silent and is not some tiny minority of people,” writes Melody Moezzi, a 34-year-old Iranian-American lawyer and human rights activists who attempted suicide at twenty-five. “It’s not some tiny minority of people, but they’re so fucking quiet about it, and that was the thing that really pissed me off when I went into the hospital and realized that.”
Stage began the project in 2011, but her story begins in 2006, after her own suicide attempt. Between college and grad school, Stage found herself depressed, trying to maintain a job and trudging through the end of an abusive relationship. “I was trying to do it all without betraying the fact that I was not okay,” she recently wrote on xoJane. “I was suicidal.”
After a rather disillusioning hospital stay following her attempt, Stage got back on her feet and enrolled in a psychology PhD program. She wanted to focus her studies on suicide, but found most professors were less-than-thrilled about her pursuing that specific facet of psychology. She eventually left the program to pursue a successful career as a music photographer, but still felt the need to advocate for suicide awareness—especially for the huge and silent demographic of suicide attempt survivors.
“I Googled ‘suicide survivor’ and I kept finding ‘loss survivors’—those who have survived the suicide of a loved one,” she tells me. “I was like, I know I’m not the only one who has done this.”
Two portraits of suicide survivors from Live Through This.
Nearly 485,000 Americans visited hospitals for injuries due to self-harm in 2012, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. That means for every person who ends his or her life, there’s potentially 12 people who attempt and survive suicide. “We are not able to distinguish intentional suicide attempts from non-intentional self-harm behaviors,” writes the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “But we know that many suicide attempts go unreported or untreated, and surveys suggest that at least one million people in the U.S. each year engage in intentionally inflicted self-harm.”
Live Through This is an artistic endeavor that gives suicide attempt survivors a voice. Above all, Stage wants the project to communicate a truthful representation of that experience. “I want it to be positive, but I also want it to be honest,” she says. “That means taking responsibility, acknowledging what you’ve done, showing your face, using your name, telling your story and saying, hey, I still struggle with this.”
Stage initially searched for subjects on (where else?) Craigslist. Once she had found some people willing to tell their stories of surviving suicide, she began the process of interviewing and photographing. She asks each subject to share the events leading up to their attempt, as well as those that followed, with the disclaimer that they should only share what they’re comfortable sharing. It helps that her self-portrait is among the first visitors see in the Live Through This web gallery. “Everybody knows that I’m a survivor, and I think that gives me a special kind of access. They know the moment they sit down that I’m not going to be like, well, why the hell did you do that?”
She also insists that each subject is at least a year out from their most recent suicide attempt: “You need time to have perspective on that [experience], and it’s not going to come in a week.”
The survivors’ stories are sometimes monologues, sometimes conversations, and always genuine and humble. “Most people don’t think their stories are interesting,” she says. “But I just feel like all of these experiences are valid.”
After taking 88 portraits and running a successful Kickstarter campaign to expand the project, Stage no longer needs to seek subjects—they come to her. She now travels the country photographing attempt survivors and sharing their stories. She has also recently partnered with the American Association of Suicidology as a member of the Lived Experience Division of their Speakers Bureau. Because of her work, and the work of other advocates, the American Association of Suicidology has recently established a new (and very necessary) division of their organization dedicated to suicide attempt survivors.
These developments are hugely important in the effort to encourage a more open dialogue about suicide, which in turn has the potential to save many lives. Suicide has long been considered a taboo topic, and while advocacy has come a long way in the last couple decades, there is still a fair amount of stigma attached to suicide, and to mental health issues in particular. The myth that talking about suicide will normalize it, or put ideas into people’s heads, is nothing short of pervasive.
“It’s less that you talk about it and more how you talk about it,” says Stage. “I’m not trying to normalize suicide; I’m trying to normalize the idea that these thoughts can happen to anybody.”