Downtown Springfield art walk project shines light on the dark world of suicide

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. This coming Friday night during downtown Springfield's First Friday Art Walk there will be a special photo and video exhibit at Randy Bacon's photography studio entitled "It Knows No Face... Portraits of Suicide Survivors."

Bacon, a well-known and acclaimed local photographer, still does commercial and portrait work, but at his gallery this week you won't find any smiling faces.

The large black-and-white photographs adorning the walls are of 17 people who have either survived suicide attempts or lost a loved one to suicide.

And their portraits include a short narrative of the struggles they've been through, which can be quite jarring. Details like growing up in a family with a history of mental illness, contemplating using their brand new razor to kill themselves, hearing gunshot sounds in the next room as a small child as a loved one died, experiencing cyberbullying, and being drugged and raped.

"Nobody wants to talk about it but yet we need to talk about it because the problem is not only there but it's getting worse," Bacon said.

According to the World Health Organization, someone is dying of suicide every 40 seconds. And the first thing you notice in the photos of suicide survivors is the pain and sadness in their eyes. Like the eyes of a father and mother, Mary Jane and Tim Holmes, who lost their 19 year-old son Sam to suicide just over a year ago.

"Secrets can kill and that's what killed my son," Mary Jane said. "Sam held back pretty much everything. He didn't tell us when he started struggling with his issues. He became so hopeless that he didn't see anything that was going to take this pain away. I find that helping others helps push me forward. But every day is a struggle."

Stephanie Appleby had five suicides in her family and started experiencing problems early on.

"I was in kindergarten and I had my first experience with what I know now as a panic attack," Appleby said.

And she became so consumed by anxiety attacks that she literally shut herself off from the rest of the world.

"I was confined to my home for 14 years," she pointed out. I did not leave (my home) at all. A year of that I was confined to my bedroom."

And at one point, she too tried suicide.

"I got into the bathtub and slit my wrists and survived that."

Now Stephanie is a partner in this project as the marketing director for Southwest Missouri's National Alliance for Mental Health where she's noticing an uptick in suicide attempts among teenagers ("that's because there's a lot of pressure in society now that we didn't have years ago") and women ("I think women are more apt to put that kind of pressure on ourselves because we're the caretakers. We take care of everybody else").

Bacon, who's also done exhibits on cancer survivors and the homeless will show his suicide survivor photos and video presentations from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday at his studio at 600 West College Street. And those involved say it's important because, as the title of the exhibit explains, "suicide knows no face".

"It doesn't discriminate based on age, income, where you live, what nationality," Bacon pointed out. "It crosses it all."

"Those of us who have come forward are doing this to let people know that you are not alone," Mary Jane Holmes said. "You feel so lonely when you struggle with a mental illness because the stigma, the judgement and the shame are just so prevalent."

"With this project I'm trying to penetrate that thing called the heart, Bacon added, "so that maybe they will walk away maybe not so judgemental about it, maybe not so misinformed. Maybe they'll walk away and say 'hey, I'm actually dealing with this myself and I need to get help.'"