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Hannes Jung traveled to Lithuania to explore a country marked by a high rate of suicide. Below, the 32-year-old photographer writes about his project, “How is Life?”:
Death follows life. Always. A fact that unites all of us.
As a young person, I expect to die when I’m old, maybe when I’m sick, but definitely not now. So much still lies ahead of me. For the ones who are left behind, suicide always raises the question of life. Why did someone choose death over life?
The suicide rate in Lithuania is nearly three times as high as the average rate in the European Union. It is among the highest in the world.
Looking at the bigger picture, suicides occur more frequently in bigger cities. Whereas in rural areas, where social ties are stronger, less people lose hope in life. But in Lithuania, more people commit suicide in the countryside. Men between ages 40 and 50 are at a high risk of suicide. Alcoholism and unemployment, among other reasons, are contributing factors.
The reasons for each suicide are different, but they are not an expression of personal freedom. They’re often attached to hopelessness and disease. Social and environmental factors also play a big role.
Since World War II and starting with the Soviet occupation, the per-capita suicide rate for Lithuanian men at times has grown from 10 suicides per 100,000 to 90. Experts speak about a collective trauma and loss of identity — influenced among others by the forced collectivization of the farms in rural areas through the Soviets. But the reasons for suicide are always complex and personal, and they cannot mainly rest on the country’s trauma.
“How is Life?” is not just about photography. It is about the people and their stories. I worked with the subjects and asked them to write down their personal stories. Their statements are an essential part of this project.
I photograph life, not death, because death cannot be seen. It’s like the wind: You can’t take photos of the wind, but you can capture its consequences, the bending of trees, the rolling waves.
(The research for the project was supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation. To protect the subjects’ privacy, only their first names are used.)
Eduardas, above, wrote:
The gate through which we see off our dead is like a boundary between two worlds — the time of the past, the present, and eternity. Every time I visit a cemetery I gaze at the signs of memory: crosses, stones and tiles, and fences, which mark the burial places of people we held important, cherished and loved so much. This space under a laconic line, usually consisting of two names and two dates, encompasses a whole life — with its successes and losses, joys and grievances, thousands of good deeds, fatherly hugs and childish hubbub.
I often stop in my steps, remembering the stories of my parish members, as time carries them into oblivion day by day. What remains is what touches the hearth, what touches the depths of the soul and prompts asking, what do we live for? Only to have a mossy stone standing in the place of our eternal rest?
As I gaze at the vast area of the cemetery, my memories take me back to the distant end of December 2003, when, having buried a deceased, I walked past a hole being dug by gravediggers, and I overheard them chatting that the son of the deceased, who will soon be buried, came by to ask them to dig a wider grave. The gravediggers did not understand why he asked for it, thinking that the son’s concern was to make sure that his mother is buried as beautifully as possible, and that frozen soil did not obstruct inserting the coffin beautifully. Unfortunately, as she went about the matters of the burial, his sister found the 45-year-old man at home, having killed himself. A wider grave proved to be necessary. The two were buried on the last day of 2003, together.
Who can decide whether a person kills himself, or is killed by immaturity, egoism, failure to be independent, dependencies, fear of loneliness and responsibility, thinking that after the death of a close one nobody will need him anymore, because the most important bond is gone. And yet, that painful moment of bidding farewell to the most cherished ones would be easier to endure if we remembered God, who needs us all — the righteous and the mistaken. Instead of rejecting Life that his mother gave him, the son should have rather prayed for the soul of the mother — and lived on, to the joy of other people.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
Kenneth Dickerman is a photo editor. He previously worked as a photo editor at MSN in Seattle and TIME in New York City. Before that, he worked as a freelance photographer specializing in politics and conflict and his work appeared in The New York Times, TIME and US News & World Report among other publications.