Scott Chisholm knows better than most how difficult it is to speak openly about suicide. "It's such a difficult word to say, let alone a subject to talk about," he says. Nearly 30 years after his own father's suicide, Chisholm's voice still drops to a hushed whisper whenever the word lands in one of his sentences.
Yet Chisholm is committed to starting a dialogue about the subject and hopes that his photo project, Collateral Damage: Images of Those Left Behind by Suicide, can provide the spark. He believes the final product, which will include a book of photo portraits of people who've lost loved ones to suicide, will reduce the stigma associated with suicide and help "survivors" move forward in their recovery.
"When I'd speak about my father's suicide, people would say, 'I would never have pictured you tied to suicide,'" he says. "I'd always be taken aback by that and it led to the question of well, what is your picture?"
He will discuss Collateral Damage at the Communities Addressing Suicide Together (CAST) provincial conference in Dartmouth on March 26. He'll also be using the time to meet with Nova Scotians who have contacted him through leftbehindbysuicide.org, and volunteered as photo subjects.
Chisholm, a Thunder Bay firefighter who moonlights as a professional sports and portrait photographer, says each photo session yields a unique representation of what it means to grieve someone lost to suicide.
"Just meeting people and hearing their stories, that's where the images come from," he says. "It's not pre-determined or a case of 'This is what I'm looking for.' It comes out of the dialogue."
Chisholm says that dialogue has been overwhelmingly positive since he launched the project in 2009. Any criticism has been blunted, he says, by the fact that participation is voluntary and photo subjects can opt out of the project up to the point between the book's first printing and its release.
"Out of about 300 or 400 emails and probably about 100 phone calls, I got one phone call from someone who saw this as taking advantage of my father's death," says Chisholm, who adds that the lone objector was converted into a believer.
Meanwhile, hundreds of others have vocalized their support for Chisholm's idea, including Angela Davis, program coordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association's Nova Scotia division and the CAST organization. Davis says Chisholm's photos have the potential to halt a distressingly common suicide cycle. "Survivors of suicide are six to eight times more likely to die by suicide themselves," she says. "It makes what he's doing very preventative."
Originally, Chisholm expected to complete Collateral Damage within a year, but an outpouring of interest from both mental- health professionals and would-be participants has led to an expansion of the project and a likely 2011 release date for the book. In October, he will return to Nova Scotia to present a gallery of Collateral Damage photos taken in the province. His objective is to create a portrait of a diverse group of individuals united. "This is my father. This is seven-year-olds. This is First Nations communities. This is geriatric suicide," he says. "This doesn't have a social barrier, a financial barrier."
Chisholm wants to eliminate a barrier to recovery for people who've been touched by suicide. In the end, he'll judge his success not by the images he creates, but the words they inspire.