Death Wooed Us
Donna J. Wan
March 19 – April 25, 2015
And there were other signs
That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us
Louise Glück, Cottonmouth Country
In her most recent body of work, the Taiwanese-born, Stanford educated and San Francisco based photographer, Donna J. Wan has dedicated herself to exploring an often shuttered and taboo subject - the taking of one’s own life. A former sufferer of severe postpartum depression who once considered the same path, Ms. Wan recovered and committed herself to exploring this most intimate and difficult avenue by unblinkingly pursuing “suicide destinations” - those most sought after vistas where lives had ended. Therapeutically, she followed the paths of those who chose these spots, guided by her own experience and an enduring need to understand. From shortly after the birth of her daughter in early 2011 until mid-2012, Ms. Wan’s illness lingered. In trying to recall the path that led her to the project, she says, I believe the particular timing came when my husband and I were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and I was looking out at the beautiful views of the bay and landscape. I knew it was one of the most famous places for committing suicide, so I began to think about why suicidal people chose the particular places that they did to end their lives. Her photographic pursuit became her path to recovery, resulting in a body of work of sublime views, positively reaffirming life.
Bridges, beaches, cliffs and hideaways are featured in this series of land and seascapes with severe contrasts of bucolic imagery and often, vertiginous viewpoints.. While bravely attempting to photograph in a seemingly weightless and ungrounded space, Ms. Wan does not claim to recreate the last seconds of the victims’ lives. Instead, she suggests that I am attempting to bring to life an idea of what these moments may have been like as no one can ever truly know the pain and anguish suffered….. Death is not beautiful – in fact, jumping from a bridge 200 feet high is a very painful and violent way to die. Yet the sublimity of these places continues to lure people to them. I do not intend for my work to glorify the allure of these places. She has also stated, I know some people may believe that I am glorifying or romanticizing death by suicide in these places - and I understand that - but that is not at all my intention. She has researched the locations through public records and press reports but the images’ sources remain anonymous. She feels the identities of those that died to be sacrosanct in order to protect those loved ones left behind.
Views from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Dumbarton Bridge, Muir Beach and Seacliff Beach in the San Francisco Bay Area all belie the seemingly easy craft with which Ms. Wan constructs her pictures. Formally exquisite, the emotional resonance of the work slowly reveals itself. Each subsequent photograph deepens the contradiction between the beauty of these places and their ability to invite death and violence. Solitude, revelation, destiny – even ecstasy – and of course, fear, are the colors these images are painted through with. Nobody who succeeds at this tragedy will ever be able to attest to the images’ verisimilitude but these photographs make a brave and noble attempt to portray their last moments. Abstractly, the images call to mind the “spirit” photographs of the 19th century, not in the artifice of their technique, but in the spirit of their quest to recall the lost – and the losses suffered.
Death Wooed Us has already been recognized as a powerful and controversial statement. The photographs are undeniable in their ability to jolt the senses but it is also Ms. Wan’s desire is to see the work as a balm that may smooth the jarring recognition of the topic and to ease discussion of its results.
All works © Donna J. Wan.