Georgie Wileman: “I want the vulnerability of men to be shown”

This article was originally published in issue #7894 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Boys Do Cry is the latest project by Brooklyn-based British photographer Georgie Wileman. It portrays the scourge of suicide through the lives of a selection of young men, each of whom has endured depression, survived suicide attempts, or suffered through the loss of a loved one. “Suicide is the biggest killer in men under 45,” explains Wileman. “And I want the vulnerability of men to be shown. I don’t believe we give men the space to be weaker.”

Wileman’s approach to the project was shaped by her own experiences. Since the age of 13, she has had endometriosis, a painful condition that affects one in 10 women. Her series, This is Endometriosis – a self-portrait from which featured in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in 2017 – dealt in part with her own illness and its long-term effects. “Living with depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety as a result of PTSD myself, I related deeply to my subjects, and knew this was a story I needed to tell,” says Wileman. “I create my work to help others feel acknowledged in their pain.”

© Georgie Wileman.

One explanation for the disproportionate number of men attempting suicide is a culturally conditioned disinclination to discuss mental health issues. In seeking potential subjects, Wileman decided to first open up about herself. “By approaching conversations in an open, honest way I found people were willing to give me the same back,” she explains. One incident in particular underscored the scale of the problem. “When flyering for the project, I met two young men and when I asked if they knew of anyone who suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts, one of them replied, ‘Aren’t we all?’. His honest response spurred the work on.”

Wileman met her respondents over tea in their own homes, and Boys Do Cry captures both the comfort and the loneliness of their circumstances. It provides a window into a diverse array of lives, each with issues both personal and emblematic of maladies in the US today. Brighton, for instance, struggled with his sexuality in a strict Mormon community. “He lost his good friend Stockton in a suicide pact with two other boys; a desperate act of gay men who could see no future.” One image shows Brighton clasping his phone, which displays a photograph of the young Stockton. It is paired with a handwritten note from Brighton reading, “I wish they knew there was more”; a message to the past from a better present.

© Georgie Wileman.
© Georgie Wileman.

Wileman had each subject write a similar text. “I wanted to give these men a space to express what has helped them through the years,” she explains. These often convey a measure of hope. Jaxxon, who is transgender and has raised a younger brother after their mother’s death and father’s subsequent suicide, wrote: “He chose to end; I choose to continue for him.” Another photograph sees Jaxxon rest a hand on their father’s urn, a tribute to a departed parent.

Not every meeting had an optimistic bent. Jacob, who Wileman photographed part-concealed behind a curtain, used his note to list the painkillers he concealed in his drawer, one placed in each corner to allay suspicion. In one shot we see Eric clean-cut and T-shirted; in another, Wileman’s camera homes in on the dirt stuck to the underside of his feet, a detail underscoring just how difficult Eric finds taking care of himself. “I wanted this series to be more evolved than a portrait story, and to try to document this epidemic as best I could,” says Wileman. Exposing
a nationwide phenomenon through a series of intimate encounters, Boys Do Cry grants vitality to an issue too often left faceless.

Joe Lloyd

Joe Lloyd is a freelance writer on art, architecture and photography (and any combination of the three). Based in London but revitalised by regular travel, he is particularly interested in cityscapes, socially-motivated practice and gastronomic history.