Even though there has been much progress over the years, there are some things that are still a bit more “taboo” to talk about. One example is the topic of suicide. However, there is one brave woman who tackles this topic head on, Mariangela Abeo. Having gone through an experience with losing her brother, she now photographs and interviews people who have also been affected by suicide. We had the chance to talk to her about her photography series. Click read more to check out the full interview.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Mariangela Abeo. I am 43 years old and have been married for 20 years. We have a 21 year old daughter who is a professional ballerina. I am producer and photographer and do Audience Coordinating at CreativeLive in Seattle. I was born and raised here in the Pacific Northwest but have traveled all over the world and lived on 3 different continents.
For people who don’t know, your Instagram, @facesoffortitude, is a stunning black and white portrait gallery centered around suicide awareness. Let’s start from the beginning, what inspired you to create this project and is there a meaning behind the name?
That’s a loaded question. How about what DIDN’T inspire me. No but really – Suicide has been what some people call an “option” in my life starting when I was 17. I attempted to take my own life in response to sexual assault that happened at the highschool I was attending. My attempt failed and over the last 2 decades I have worked on improving my self love and battling the darkness. Then 10 years ago my only brother, who was 7 years younger than me, took his own life. It shook me to my core. It shattered our family. After that I threw myself into Suicide Survivors groups. Was obsessed with wanting to help everyone become happier and would drop everything if I heard someone was sad or god forbid suicidal or depressed. I was not going to miss the chance to save anyone else. I was a helicopter mother, wife, friend, human. I started going to counseling about 5 years ago, and she quickly showed me how harmful my guilt was. Gave me tools to deal with my grief, and encouraged creativity. I started working for this amazing company and had the opportunity to hear a speaker named Stacy Pearsall talk about her personal portrait project. She gave a keynote talk about taking trauma and making something out of it. Something to not only help ourselves heal but also others. It was then I decided I had to do this project. I had been focusing on Production and had not picked up my camera in 6 years. I dusted it off, and my work let me use anything they had. They have been amazing. My husband helped me with the name. I sat for hours, trying to find a word that describes both strength but also had a way of depicting people being weathered and survivors. It comes from the Latin word Fortis which means strong. That’s what all of these people are, no matter how they are connected to suicide – strong.
One thing I noticed with your gallery vs. other black and white galleries on Instagram, is the use of dramatic shadows. Is there a reason for doing so and how do you think it contributes to the stories in the caption?
Yes – well first off I chose B&W because it takes out details that people often subconsciously judge other people for. I know I get super puffy and snotty when I cry lol. Or some people get red and splotchy. Some people may be insecure about their acne or double chins, or whatever. This medium takes those things out of the equation and is very flattering for most people. The shadows help with the drama but also with the privacy if that makes sense. It’s like the shadows embrace people while they talk. It’s hard enough talking about this subject in general, I want people to not have to worry about anything else. To try to be as comfortable as possible and know, that on the photography front, I am going to make the world see how amazing they are, inside and out.
What is the process like when you first meet with someone? How does the conversation usually begin?
That’s a great question and it’s so important to me. The PRE meet up is very important in this process. If I don’t have even a distant connection to the person, I like to have a few weeks to get to know them. I usually will ask them a bit about themselves via email, and in return tell them a bit about me. I ask if it would follow eachother on social media so I can see their lives, and they can see mine. This is about such a vulnerable topic, I have to feel comfortable as much as they do. It’s also important that they are ready for my process. I need to know where they are in their grief. I am not a counselor, that is above my pay grade 😉 and I am nowhere near qualified. I need to know that people are not only on the path of grief and living for themselves, but that they have the support they need without my project or at least are making positive moves to get there. This project is about people’s journeys and experiences with suicide, and finding the light on the other side. When I feel like they are ready for my space, they come to the studios on a weekend. I get them acquainted with the space, and then I tell them my story. I am always the first person to get vulnerable. It’s very important that they see my open heart before they open theirs. Then I tell them to start wherever they want and tell me about how they are connected to suicide.
How does it affect you to sit on the other side of that camera while people open up about themselves? What is it like to be in that vulnerable space with another person?
Whew it’s a lot. Thankfully I had a great self care plan in place before I started the project. Some stories haunt me for days. I have often stopped sessions just to hug people. I have been moved to ugly cry, been angry enough to scream and even felt like I could not stop laughing. There are that many emotions that happen. I am always so humbled and shocked at how people that hardly know me can come into this space and unearth their sadness to me. Some are talking about moments that they have never talked about before to anyone. I am honored and so so touched. It’s also proof of just how important this topic is. How many people need a space to talk about these things and DON’T currently have that available to them. I am so happy to be that space for them. I have learned so much about the resilience of the human spirit and how many incredible warriors truly roam this earth. It’s so inspiring.
Are there any stories that have either changed you or stuck with you as you continue to photograph more people?
Okay I hate to sound like an unbiased mother here but I am being real; every story has changed me. They are all so important. I hate to sound crass but I tell people often, this isn’t a dick comparing contest. I will get emails and DMs from people that say “I have had thoughts but just that. I don’t have these sad stories like others, so I am probably not what you want for this project.” and there is nothing farther than the truth. This isn’t a race to see who has been through more trauma. My pain doesn’t have to measure yours. The fact is, mental illness and suicide touches WAY more lives than we think. I can tell you that the stories I have related to the most have been ones like – Bella Chavez the 18 yr old who lost her brother 6 months ago to suicide. I wept when I went home. I knew how that exact loss felt. Her mother Stacie who had lost her son, I knew I would connect with her as a mother and be gutted for her, I was a mother. But then her quote had me almost unable to respond to her. Her son Ian jumped, similar to my brother, and she said “I just wish I had 10 second more with Ian. Not to be his mother, but just to be a gentle breeze to blow him to safety.” That was also my wish for my brother. And her partner Kat, who found him and protected her family from seeing him because she is a firefighter. I mean come on, that level of pain is just unimaginable. That whole family was just incredible to me, their pain but also their love and support of each other. Their matching tattoos written in Ian’s handwriting, that say “Live Hard” from his suicide note. That story will stay with me forever. There are so many others that touched me deeply, Caleb, the florist who struggled with bullies that made him want to disappear because he was gay. Kayti the woman who lost her father and countless friends to AIDs. Liam who had struggled with depression, darkness, homelessness. Autumn and her mother Viola – Autumn lost her friend to suicide and then tried to take her own life, and her mother Viola works in the mental health field and was struggling with how to help her own daughter. Kadence a trans woman who had been attacked, beat down and broken down, still finding her light. Michael who got lost in darkness after sexual assault, Jen living with the knowledge she was the product of a rape, Johnnie, a trans man who was raised within the Billy Graham foundation. I mean the stories of sadness, loss, trauma but also survival, perseverance, hope and faith, have given me more inspiration than there are words in any language to describe it. I would need a combination of a heart, a tear and a universe. Does that emoji exist? In short, every, single, word has changed me and I look forward to all of the ones to come.
What do you hope this series will do in terms of suicide awareness and prevention? And do you have any words of advice for people who are out there struggling?
I hope this photo series will do a number of things. When I started this, I admit, I thought I would take a few photos and be good. I thought it would be a great way to heal myself and be creative. And then it started to snowball. I get 5-10 messages a day from strangers, saying they connected to something someone said in one of my posts. Saying they cried and felt like they weren’t alone. I get people emailing me their stories, pages long. And I read every one. Stories that sometimes I am shocked they tell me, but once again, proof the space is needed and i am so humbled and honored its with me.
So it is my hopes that people can look at the photos of these brave individuals and find a story similar to their own. I hope they can find words that will help them during their own dark moments. My goal isn’t to make a SAD portrait project. I want people to see all the sides of emotions. The sadness and rawness of suicide is important, but so is the process after. The growth. The resilience and activism. The healing and processing. The emerging smiles and new happiness! They are all stages and all things people need to see.
My advice to people struggling is this: Find your voice. Find your light. The cracks in your armour are there to let that light in. Let people listen. And if you don’t have anyone, find my page, there are people there. Look at the portraits of people that have also been through that darkness and still are fighting it. They are all in this journey together – they have found a community of people with these portraits and with people that connect with them online, and we have space for you. Here is a seat, right next to me. You are not alone. We are your people. You matter to us. You have more to do here. Your story is not finished;
Where can people follow you on social media?
The project is on Instagram and Facebook – however Instagram is probably the most active because I use the Instagram story for BTS on shoot days and to show extra photos.
Also I welcome people to follow my personal Instagram page. Its very important that people know that this is a vulnerable thing, and so I want to be an open book to people, so they feel safe: @mariangelaabeo