'We must get men to talk': photographers address suicide rates among young men

Rapper Professor Green has bravely shared his battle with grief since his father killed himself. Now, musicians and photographers have joined forces to confront the issue – and encourage vulnerable young men to seek help

“Suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 45,” says Professor Green with a tremble in his voice. “Someone could be hurting inside, but if they don’t tell you about it you might never know. We must get men to talk.”

Portrait of Professor Green, by Scarlet Page, for the Alpha project
Portrait of Professor Green, by Scarlet Page, for the Alpha project. Photograph: Scarlet Page/Calm

On a mission to challenge the stigma attached to mental illness, the rapper recently fronted the BBC documentary Suicide and Me, where he reflected on his turbulent childhood, the day his estranged father hanged himself, and his lingering sense of grief.

Now, for International Men’s Day on 19 November, Professor Green will feature in Alpha, a photography exhibition in aid of the male suicide prevention charity Calm (Campaign Against Living Miserably).

To photographer and Alpha curator Helena Berg, finding out the disturbingly high rate of male suicides was a call to action. “I was so shocked and wanted to help,” she says. “I contacted four fellow photographers and we set out to interpret different parts of the male emotional experience. We called the project Alpha to reflect the cultural pressures put upon men to live up to the stereotypical “alpha male” model ... and we concentrated on emotions that would lead a person not to speak, like anxiety, depression and loneliness.”

Will Morgan’s photos show spacious outdoor scenes, all shot at dawn, to explore the idea of darkness before the break of a new day. “There is a history of depression in his own family too,” explains Berg, “so Morgan took all the shots in his native Ireland and placed himself at the heart of every scene.”

An image by Peter Gunzel for the Alpha project
A mesmerising nightscape by Peter Gunzel. Photograph: Peter Gunzel

Photographer Jennifer Pattison chose to trace the steps of her own father, who had depression in the past, by photographing objects that he made while rehabilitating, from ceramic pots to sculptures made entirely of feathers. “Through these personal objects,” she explains, “I am exposing a very personal aspect of my relationship with him.” Her prints are purposely small so “the viewer will be required to carefully study and peer into them.”

Helena Berg’s portrait of Placebo’s Brian Molko
Helena Berg’s portrait of Placebo’s Brian Molko. Photograph: Helena Berg

Berg herself concentrated on feelings of isolation, by photographing men under ice and water. “Not as a reference to drowning,” she swiftly clarifies, “but to illustrate immobilisation and the feeling of ‘being frozen’, which many depressed people experience. I used Perspex on top of the subject [Placebo’s Brian Molko] for the illusion of ice and to create photos that are haunting and tranquil at the same time.”

Peter Gunzel has taken rather mesmerising nightscapes, where the moon casts a distinctly eerie light. One particularly arresting shot shows a huge cave shrouded in darkness, apart from a starkly bright, thin crack of light that faintly illuminates the rocks in its path. Through his long-exposure shots, Gunzel shows two elements constant with both depression and photography; the passing of time and the ever-presence of light.

Music photographer Scarlet Page, daughter of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, has taken arresting portraits of Gary Numan, Frank Turner and Professor Green which have a strikingly blurry effect. “No image manipulation has gone into any of the photos,” Page explains. “I used a special lens which gives a very shallow depth of field and keeps the eyes sharp,” she says. “I went to Gary Numan’s soundcheck at the Forum and we took some shots outside in-between chatting. All three men have been touched by depression in some way ... I wanted them to be quite expressionless, so no conclusions were made when looking at them. I think there is a softness and vulnerability to them.”

Alpha was timed to open on International Men’s Day, says Berg, “to highlight this gender disparity issue, where three times as many men are taking their lives as women.”


Hannah Gal

The GuardianTramp

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