Mike Kear is a London based documentary photographer. His practice primarily focuses on work for charities and NGOs both in the UK and worldwide. In his project Surface Tension Mikes reflects on the thoughts and experiences of the suicidal, producing abstract images taken at various sites of suicides along the Thames Bridges.
How did Surface Tension come about? What drew you to exploring suicide?
I was working on a project along the Thames looking at different aspects of the river as it passes through London. Whilst editing I was contemplating some images that looked straight down and how that might be the view of people contemplating suicide by jumping into the Thames. This led me to visiting various sites of suicides along the Thames Bridges. I then realised the shocking statistics of how frequently suicides were attempted on the Thames – often more than one a day! Suicide is the largest cause of death in young men in the UK and there has been very little dialogue on the issue. Organisations like CALM are now doing some amazing work. I am a survivor of three suicide attempts and I wanted to help increase the dialogue on the subject which is something very close to my heart. I have very much moved on from the issues in my life that made suicide seem a viable option for me, I am nonetheless very aware of a fine line that a lot of us tread. Choosing to participate in this interview was more difficult than I had initially thought, but despite the stigma around suicide, I feel it is important to show the very personal side to this work.
Your text is very moving and really transports you into the mind of the person contemplating jumping. I’m curious about what went through your mind as you stood there photographing each spot?
Sometimes I was very sad, other times I was quite scared when fulling engaging in the process, but often there was a certain calmness, somewhat difficult to describe.
The images are quite hypnotic. What was your motive behind photographing in such an abstract way?
Suicide is such a complex and individual issue. By producing a series of abstract images of the surface of the water, the idea being to enable the viewer to engage with the subject without being too prescriptive; to allow the viewer to consider themselves in the position of the person contemplating suicide and allow them to bring their own thoughts to the issue.
Most of us have looked over the edge of a bridge, down into the water. It maybe whilst watching to see whose stick is the winner whilst playing Poohsticks or enjoying the playfulness of the water. Or it might be more contemplative, watching the allure of the water, possibly even imagining what it might be like to jump with no intention of actually doing so. A less common thought, though, is that of the person who is looking down into the water as they decide to jump to end their life.
With this series I seek to enable an emotional engagement with a very personal and intense issue – the issue of a person feeling their only option is to take their own life. These images are not merely an abstraction, they place the viewer in that very vulnerable position – one of a person in despair. Might it be that the person in despair is actually very similar to you and me?
Where are the accompanying texts from?
The texts are from a variety of sources including some interviews I carried out with RNLI lifeboat crew from Kew and Tower lifeboat stations. Others are quotes from family members left behind and some texts are poetry. I was concerned that the poetry might over romanticise the issue, but being interspersed with the other quotes I hope they help with the contemplation of the images and the issues.
You mention on your website you’re working on a new project around suicide. Can you give us an insight into what that is?
This is an ongoing project and I’m continuing the series with other locations around the UK. I bought a camper van this year so I can spend time at different bridges and to connect with the people who look after the bridges and live or work nearby who are often affected by suicides. This work is also incorporating the stories of people who have survived suicide attempts. Alongside this I’m looking at the role and responsibility religion plays with suicide in the UK. Because this is a very emotive subject at this stage it’s probably better I don’t say anything to prejudice the project.
If any of your readers would like to be involved with this work they would be very welcome to get in touch with me.