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The Survivor Project: For photographer Grace June, salvation and strength come from helping others cope with suicide

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 8, 2018

It was in between classes and Grace June, a photography student, was contemplating a box cutter.

The blade was in a pen cup on a table in the classroom where she was sitting, waiting, sinking. She was tired, angry, overwhelmed and seriously considering “going into the bathroom and ending my life.”

It was a thought she’d had before, often and in many places, including school. She was attending Yakima Valley Community College when a friend and fellow student came into the classroom smiling and – without saying a word – wrapped her arms around her.

“She gave me a warm hug,” June said. “I don’t think she knew what a difference she made right then. Basically, a hug saved my life.”

Today, June is a fine art and commercial photographer and proprietor of Grace June Imagery in Spokane. Photography helps her cope with her symptoms. Of anxiety. Of post-traumatic stress. Of bipolar disorder.

She’s hoping her new series of portraits of other survivors not only helps the participants in the images but others – people who have attempted suicide, have suicidal thoughts or have a loved one who died by suicide – as well.

The “Survive Project Art Show,” made possible through a grant from Spokane Arts, showcases 23 portraits of people whose lives have been affected by suicide. The exhibit runs from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday. Its 12-by-18 black-and-white metal prints are accompanied by text created or chosen by the subjects themselves.

Together, they possess a powerful but raw and haunting quality, capturing strength and pain, confusion and anguish, love and support. They show, June said, the spirit of survival.

“These people really showed me their courage and resilience,” she said. “Everybody inspired me. I’m honored they let me photograph them.”

From her work, she said she learned two things: “People want to be seen. And people want to help others.”

Survivors were photographed within the last year. All are from the area. All have survived a suicide attempt or continue to survive in the aftermath of a death of a loved one.

“It’s not that they are narcissistic, like, look at my pain,” June said. “It’s, like, this is my life. This is my reality. I know other people have felt this way, too. It’s to help create understanding of what others go through. It’s to start a conversation. I think one of the leading causes of suicide is silence.”

Suicide was the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34 in 2016, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.

Also according to the CDC, the number of deaths by suicide in both Washington state and Idaho are increasing along with their rates per 100,000.

There were 1,141 suicide deaths in Washington state, representing a rate of 15.66, in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available on the CDC website. That compares to 1,021 suicide deaths, at a rate of 14.97, in 2011, and 809 in 2006 at a rate of 12.7. In 2001, there were 712 suicide deaths at a rate of 11.89.

In Idaho in 2016, there were 351 suicide deaths at a rate of 20.85. That compares to 281 at a rate of 17.74 in 2011 and 222 at a rate of 15.12 in 2006. Five years earlier, in 2001, there were 210 suicide deaths at a rate of 15.91.

“I just think we don’t need to be dying this way,” June said. “I know that’s simplistic to say; it is really complicated.”

She points to her own story as an example. June, now 31, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder within days of the life-affirming hug she received from her friend at YVCC. She was 22.

She hadn’t been sleeping. She’d been hearing voices. She’d been drinking. And she’d been experiencing delusions and “heavy suicidal ideation,” or suicidal thoughts.

“I was drinking to sleep but only sleeping three hours,” she said. “It was toxic. It sucked.”

The voices she heard sometimes sounded to her like she was listening in on someone else’s conversation. “Sometimes,” she said, “they’d yell my name. It was scary. They wouldn’t always be human voices, like demonic, like what you hear in horror movies.”

She had a doctor’s appointment to talk about her depression later the same day that her friend found her alone in the photo classroom.

“If she hadn’t hugged me, I don’t think I would’ve made it to the appointment,” June said. “I do believe that hug saved my life.”

But she wasn’t out of the darkness.

She was hospitalized that day. She ended up trying some 40 different medications to manage her symptoms. She went on disability. She went off disability. She got married and divorced. Relationships with family members became strained. She continued to experience depression, she said, to the point of not leaving her house, not even to see Macklemore, one of her favorite artists, perform at Central Washington University.

“It was,” she said, “dark as hell.”

In 2013, June followed her then-boyfriend and now-husband to Spokane, moving here a year after he did. She sees this place as a place of healing, a place where she’s been able to go back to school, find “a community of creative professionals,” make a new life, create art. It’s here she started a series of self-portraits, something she did “for my own mental health.” She guesses she made “probably 100” images of herself throughout the last five years.

When she showed them to people, she found “there was a me-too factor: ‘I take that medication.’ ‘My mom has bipolar.’ ‘I have anxiety.’ People overwhelmingly related.”

And, she said, “I was able to hold the pain in my hands, outside myself. It helped me internalize the pain less and it made my pain more external. When other people felt understood by the images, it made me feel I wasn’t alone and that I was doing something good” – for herself as well as others.

Her “Survivor Project” is a kind of continuation of that work. This project grew out of that one.

“My self-portraits helped me so much, and I wanted to help others,” June said. “I wanted to do for others what my self-portraits did for me. It was a natural progression.”

She set up a booth at last year’s Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention Walk in Riverfront Park. She talked about the portrait series she wanted to do and recruited people to participate. She had two images to show as examples: one of a friend who survived a suicide attempt and another of a man who had lost his uncle. She was hoping to find 20 people to participate. In all, she found 23.

And, in April, she received a $4,900 grant from Spokane Arts to help fund the project, which includes the printing of 100 copies of a black-and-white photography book that features all of the portraits from Friday’s exhibit.

Both the show and the book are a collaboration between the photographer and the subjects. June selected the images. The people in the portraits chose the accompanying text. One wrote a dozen different drafts.

The titles of each image are simple: They are made up of the names of the people in the portraits alongside the names of the people who they lost to suicide. They came from a conversation with one of the project participants who told her: “You’re photographing the people who aren’t in the photos, too.”

The youngest attempted-suicide survivor to participate in the project is 14. The youngest affected by the loss of someone to suicide is 9.

Almost all of the people in the photographs plan to attend the event, which includes music, refreshments, poetry by Power2ThePoetry and a chance to share experiences.

“It’s about human stories,” June said. “I want to give people an opportunity to share. I want people to realize they have options and a community. It’s called ‘Survive’ because it’s active. I don’t think anybody could do it alone. I think the show kind of proves that. It’s traumatic to survive.

“I still struggle often. I get suicidal. That’s what happens when you have bipolar. I know I have options. I know I have lots to live for. I have skills. I have support. I have tools. However, the urge to die is so strong at times it almost cancels out all of those things. That’s how hard it is. That’s when I make phone calls. That’s when I call my safe people. I don’t keep it to myself. I have a responsibility. I have to manage my medical condition now much like a person who has to manage diabetes. It can be manageable. I don’t see having bipolar as something inhibitory anymore.”

Still, she said, “No one puts more stigma on me than myself.”

Two tattoos – one on each wrist – remind her she has a choice. Each, she said is “a coping tool, a visible representation that I want to live. My true self isn’t someone who wants to die by suicide.”

On her left wrist, there’s the Shakespearean saying: “To Thine Own Self Be True.”

On her right wrist: a semicolon.

“I could end the sentence,” June said. “But I choose not to.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

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