15 March 2021

The Ethical Issues in Suicide Representation

15 March 2021 - Written by PhMuseum

Triggered by a tragic event involving a close friend, Japanese photographer Kenji Chiga examines how people are easily influenced by others and how photographs and alternative visual storytelling methods affect public perception of suicide.

In August 2011, my friend disappeared. He was found two weeks later. During those two weeks, he was visiting places called "suicide spots", such as the Aokigahara and Tojinbo. He was looking for a place to die.

He seemed to be recovering afterwards, with the support of friends and family, but, in the end, he left this world in August 2015. Without talking to anyone, and leaving nothing. The way he took his life was by a suicide method which was often talked about at the time.

People thought it is an easy and painless way. Our psyche is sometimes deprived of its life by the "virus of the mind" which affects it. Since Goethe published "The Sorrows of Young Werther" in 1774, suicides imitating the protagonist of the novel occurred one after another among young people. Love suicides became frequent in the early 1700s in Japan. At the time, the chain of love suicides spreading almost like an infectious disease which was called the "love suicide tuberculosis".

History repeats itself, and emotions almost similar to an admiration for suicide continued being fueled afterwards. It spreads like a virus throughout society, from the brain of one person to another. In 1974, sociologist David P. Phillips named the phenomenon which causes these imitative suicides "the Werther effect". In 2000, WHO published "How to report suicide cases in ways which prevent suicide". In other words, a guideline on suicide media reporting.

Among the items listed in the guideline as those which may "cause a chain of suicides" are posting photographs and wills, and reporting details concerning the location and method, but, from that time to the present age, things such as these have been reported numerous times for suicides of famous people and suicides which gather people's attention.

Words and tales accompanying suicide change in form and spread, influencing people's behaviour when they face difficulties. When mentally unstable and in the gap between "I want to die" and "I want to live", the "inevitable end" death presents a temptation. Through this project, I'm considering how we're influenced by people other than ourselves, and how photographs and various other visual expressions and stories affect suicide. Suicide is the subject of an enormous amount of attention as a story to be consumed but we should consider the "invisible danger" of these impactful stories.

Words and Pictures by Kenji Chiga.


Kenji Chiga (1982 Shiga, Japan) is a freelance photographer based in Tokyo. He graduated from the Department of Electrical and Physical Sciences, School of Engineering Science at Osaka University. His work is primarily research and analysis-based documentaries. His self-published hand-made artist-book was shortlisted at Kassel Dummy Award and Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award Arles in 2019. Find him on PHmuseum and Instagram.


This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PHmuseum curators.

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