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(Un)expected – Lingering Questions Which Will Never Be Answered

(Un)expected is a photo project about the coping process of surviving relatives of suicides in West Flanders (Belgium). The book contains five stories about how these people cope with their loss in different ways: the sadness, the grieving process, but also the attempts at finding a new way to live.

In 2008, my mother stepped out of life and quite recently a friend did the same. West Flanders, the region where I grew up, has a relatively high percentage of suicides: one and a half times the European average and twice as many as in the Netherlands. Every month 20 people commit suicide in West Flanders.

My mother’s death was the most traumatizing death for me, especially as it is a suicide. The death of my friend was ultimately the trigger that led me to make a project on this theme. For the survivors, the suicide will always present lingering questions which will never be answered.

Excerpt from the chapter ‘Mother and Father’
“For the first few months after her death, my father was angry, because my mother had abandoned him. He lived completely on autopilot, going through the motions of running the household exactly the way they had once agreed to do the chores. He took care of the garden dogmatically, almost as if she were still there checking up on him. Over and over, he told me that she was the best off of all of us, and that there was nothing but loneliness left for him.”

I personally had many reasons to start this project. On one hand, it was a way of mourning and coping with the loss. On the other hand, the project served to rationalize, to give a place to the loss of my mother, to contextualize her suicide among those of my friends and neighbours in West Flanders.

One of the first things I was confronted with during my research on suicide was that I have a 17 times higher chance to die the same way as my mother, this is because one of my parents had stepped out of life. Naturally these are only statistics, but these numbers are confronting. Rationalization was, therefore, an important element to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect.

A key moment was when I started talking to fellow survivor relatives. There were many similarities that I discovered, numerous experiences and sentiments that we shared. Most of them had not anticipated or seen warning signs that the person would step out of life; however, at same time, there was nearly always fear and tension for years prior to the death that often stemmed from psychological problems.The relatives are all coping in different manners and trying to finding different ways of moving on. But, I was surprised that some relatives felt a sort of relief after the death. Everybody felt guilty about this feeling but the relief seemed to be quite a normal sentiment for some, especially if the person who died had a long history of needing psychiatric help. Of course, you have the same deep feelings of mourning but it feels strange that you can feel relief after losing someone you love. For survivors, the fact that they lost their loved one to suicide remains a shock, compounded by feelings of impotence and the questions that will remain unanswered for eternity.

My mother also had psychological problems for many years but I didn’t think she would commit suicide. Everyone denied the problem until you think it’s the most normal thing in the world and you don’t think about it, until it is finally too late.

I moved from West Flanders when I was eighteen years old, and I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with this region. When I returned after a long time to the area for this project, it took a few weeks to get in contact with the survivors and even more time to earn their trust. It was an advantage that I was also a survivor and could conduct empathetic in-depth interviews with the relatives. Everyone felt freely, expressed their feelings but overall, all survivors felt that it was important to tell the story of their loved one. I gave them also the guarantee that they could stop the collaboration at any point during the process, which gave extra confidence so they could be very open. It remains a region where people do not just talk openly about such issues and feelings, it was not for everyone and only a handful of people have contacted me.

I began by taking black and white images of the streets because it was the lowest threshold for me to photograph, this allowed me to start and experiment. In the Netherlands, this is just the opposite – you get a warm feeling when you drive through villages and can look freely inside the living rooms. In Flanders, people like to lock up. The lowered rolling shutters are quite normal in Flanders. Often rolling shutters are still down during the winter days because most people work outdoors. When they are leaving in the morning it is still dark.

A lot is kept secret when it comes to suicide. The taboo is persistent in West Flanders. In Flanders, social norms dictate that you should not discuss your problems, you should focus on your work. If you work hard, problems will disappear. With this project, I especially wanted to break the taboo and most importantly, draw attention to the usually invisible survivor relatives. I experienced the same difficult loss as they have, so I could understand the relatives. Survivor relatives stories make it recognizable again for the people who lost someone – it instills a sense of oneness. It enables the survivors to see that they are not the only one who has made it through this pain and it can soften a bit of the pain. That’s why group talk sessions can also be very important. When working with the survivors on this project, I learned that you have to keep trying to communicate with that person and be direct in your questioning – what’s wrong and how do you feel. You don’t have time to hesitate, because the negative emotional spiral where they go into can go faster than you think, and you can easily loose contact. The longer you wait the more difficult it becomes.

For professionals in psychological healthcare, I wanted to help them visualize these survivors. Despite how good they are in their profession, they can never fully understand what the relatives feel, unless they, too, have felt that loss. Through this book, the stories and the pain becomes more visible. Through my interactions with the survivors, I developed a greater understanding the complexities and the array of emotions that the survivors are struggling with. One of the survivors lost her son at the age of 17. She talked a lot about her son and about when he was young. She showed me a lot of pictures where he was near the age of my own son. It became so close and personal that I hesitated to continue for a moment. It was very difficult for me, it all became too close.

Excerpt from the chapter ‘Kris and Ward’
“So sad for him, for me, so difficult to experience. Forever. The rest of life. Still going on. Even so. Trying to be grateful. The emptiness, the loss, the absence, the expectation that it ends in death. End. But not my end. But still something that ends in me. Writing is good, is necessary, being allowed to feel sad. Trying to live. I’m trying. Really, that’s all I can do.”

Photography is a means and not an end in itself for me. I feel particularly attracted to difficult and challenging issues that do not get as much media attention-very human themes that we can all learn from. Photography is a way to get to people to learn about the complexities of life. By interacting with people, gaining deeper insights into their struggles, I attempt to understand what went wrong and why. And even if I am unable to find those answers, my work has led me to continuously question life. After a project, I often feel richer as a person and I look at the world differently. The themes of my individual projects often depart from a larger theme, then I start digging deeper until I see something intimate and deeply human.

I start with larger and broader issues and I try to find out as much as possible about the suicide, mourning, etc. Then I start reading about it, then watch movies. I also want to see the work of other people who work on the same theme. This can be very inspiring, but can also give you the feeling that you would make it completely different. All those sources of inspiration stimulate me.

Excerpt from the chapter ‘Anja, Walter, Hannah, Mira, Wout, Ward’
“Sometimes it almost gets to be too much for Walter. At those moments, he is afraid that his children will consider suicide a realistic option if life gets too hard…Walter wants to maintain her presence in the family. He feels that everything should be able to be discussed openly and he wants to be part of his children’s lives in a sensitive, supportive way. They frequently talk about Anja at the dinner table. It’s hard sometimes, but they’re come so far together already.”

I’m a late bloomer, but the fact that I wanted to do something in the creative sector was very apparent. I have no theoretical and philosophical background. I’ve always been a doer. I’m a graphic designer and worked in the advertising industry for 7 years. That experience has shaped and deformed me.  I have completely followed my own way, step by step. I personally see it as liberation and am therefore going to broach topics that would not exist in the commercial world. This does not mean that I have discarded my luggage – you are and will remain forever a child of your time (and education) and it is reflected in every decision you’ve made in your life. I try to distill the good elements. Wrong choices do not truly exist in my opinion – each individual experience (no matter whether the experience is good or bad) contributes to your uniqueness as a person and as a professional.

In the beginning, I did a lot of commercial work and have slowly made the decision to create more personal work. As a late bloomer, to me, it seemed unthinkable to make personal work after my graduation. First, money and especially securing my future in the beginning, was very important and there was still a little too much pressure from home. My parents were very simple people with a simple idea of earning a living.

I try to live as simply as possible, this gives me the mental tranquility that allows me to be concerned with my personal work. Mental peace is a prerequisite for me to do a good job. As an introvert, I seek my energy from my inner world which allows me to focus on the work at hand – unencumbered by the impulses of society around me. Since the birth of my son, I work much more efficiently. Just after the birth, I was disorientated but I have since found the extra stability.

When starting a new project, you often have beginner’s luck when a project starts but soon you feel that things could still be better, then the doubt slowly begins to fester. The doubt can really gnaw but ultimately that doubt will let me dig deeper into the subject. The doubt keeps me sharp and ensures that I will take new steps.

Film, music and architecture have always been very important to me. But at a certain point when I’m deep in a project, I try to isolate myself almost completely on external impulses, these are moments when I see little exhibitions, no music listening during work, so I can up to keep the focus. I almost exclusively use social media to carry out my work.

I really look at everything – the smallest details of how everything has taken shape in the editing and finishing, and of course, how the soul of the whole is brought forward. That’s why I find photobooks so fascinating because it tells a lot about the photographers and designers’ choices.

I must be honest that photography fascinates me when it’s about something factual, I’m a documentary photographer, the abundance of aesthetic that has crept into photography in recent years is really disturbing to me sometimes. Everything should be beautiful. With (Un)expected I sometimes took less aesthetic choices because the content comes first. What’s great about a strong photo book is it isn’t a standard sum of parts. Aesthetic images don’t necessary ensure a good photo book. The content, edit, the text and graphic design can make the work be a very intense experience, if every choice is well made.

Buy Peter’s book ‘(un)expected’ here.

Peter Dekens

I'm a documentary photographer with a keen interest in socially sensitive subjects and issues that do not generate extensive media coverage.

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