Theory & Practice

Somewhere I Belong

Brandon Kapelow reports from 'the Suicide Belt' of the US, bearing witness to stories that are all too familiar to him. Alice Zoo learns how he developed his series during a year-long mentorship with Magnum Photos.

Hunter Gossett, 19, worked at J&Y Auto with his friend Thane Morgan, a high school student who died by suicide in November 2021. As a survivor of multiple attempts, Gossett is too familiar with the (...)

A gas station forecourt is illuminated below a sky glowing with the blues and peaches of dusk. It’s empty but for cars parked around its edges, dark and falling from the sides of the frame, Christmas lights strung from a couple of trees a little way off. A figure is standing alone there, looking up towards the sky and the light. The figure is Hunter Gossett, a teenager who worked at the gas station alongside a friend, Thane Morgan, who — in November 2021 — took his own life.

This is Catron County, a region in New Mexico with the highest rate of suicide anywhere in the contiguous United States. Brandon Kapelow, a photographer and director, traveled there over the course of 2021 and 2022 to make a document of people like this, in scenes like this one; the ordinary-seeming places and landscapes that hold so many stories of loneliness and fatal suffering, where friends and family are left to reckon with the sudden departure of suicide, and the isolating context that seems to invite it with such frequency. 

For Kapelow, the issue is deeply personal. Originally from Wyoming, he experienced the loss of his father to suicide in 2005, when he was still a child. As an adult, he has dedicated himself to working in suicide prevention and advocacy, volunteering for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and Solace, a support group for survivors. 

His photographic series, Somewhere I Belong, was developed during a year-long mentorship with Magnum Photos, and published by Time magazine in October last year, alongside a self-penned article weaving his own experience into the demographic context that his photographs set out to explore.

The town of Glenwood is referred to by locals as ‘Heaven’s Waiting Room’, as more than 65% of the town’s population are over the age of 65. Seniors account for some of the highest risk groups for s (...)
Vicki Shriver, 64, the Reserve district EMS medical chief, and her husband Mike Shriver, 70, a pastor and retired state policeman, have both witnessed the shortcomings in their community’s response (...)

In early 2020, working as a filmmaker in Los Angeles, Kapelow had been wondering about the possibility of pursuing a formal photography project, imagining what shape it might take. Then the pandemic hit, and the film industry shut down. Kapelow was out of work and was staying with his family and partner in Wyoming over the winter. 

I was at a pretty low point personally,” he recalls. “Pretty much the only outlet I had was photography.” Unlike the collaborative set-up required by working on moving image, photography was something Kapelow was able to explore and execute alone. “I was looking for things that were close to home, both literally and metaphorically speaking.”

He began to research national statistics on suicide. “I came to find that the place where I was — where I grew up in Wyoming — is at the epicenter of this national trend.” The Intermountain West, a region which also includes the states of Idaho, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico, is known as ‘the Suicide Belt.’ 

Some of the top counties in the country were actually within a short drive of my childhood home, so I was able to get in a car and do some day trips,” he says. The work began as a landscape project. Deep in the early, anxiety-ridden days of social distancing, Kapelow would drive to some of the neighborhoods and landscapes most affected by suicide, making images of these places shaped by familial tragedy. 

It’s the first time in my life when I’ve really focused on bringing these two parallel tracks that I’ve been walking on together,” he says of the work, “my visual, creative output, and my focus on mental health and suicide prevention.”

Barbara Ohse, 81, a regular at the Glenwood Senior Center, lost her eldest brother to suicide. She is the last alive of her five siblings. The senior center is one of the few dedicated spaces for s (...)
Forest Service Road 105 leads to Sunflower Mesa, where a local teen attempted suicide in 2002. All images © Brandon Kapelow.

"This landscape that I’m exploring is where I’m from, and it’s part of a core of my identity."

Naomi Lang, 13, with her horse Duchess. Naomi’s father Craig was the closest EMT to the scene when Naomi was accidentally run over by a truck, requiring him to perform life-saving duties on his own (...)

Chance led him to a first mentorship with Matt Black at the Los Angeles Center of Photography. Black’s American Geography project had inspired him in its straightforward beginnings, one step leading to the next via an unfolding path of curiosity and openness, the context expanding until the work became something far-reaching and layered. 

As Kapelow worked on his landscape project, he had several chance encounters with people that had direct connections to suicide; he saw how many people in these landscapes had been personally touched by the issue, making the human aspect of the subject newly palpable. 

I realized that I wanted to do the project again, but focus entirely on people,” Kapelow remembers. As it so happened, Black was then looking for people to join a year-long Magnum workshop that he was running with Susan Meiselas. He encouraged Kapelow to join, and to see this new iteration of the project through.

Along with the work’s renewed focus on people came an intensification of its personal aspect. The project’s title borrows the name of a song written by Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, who died by suicide in 2017. Alongside the resonance of this reference, the title was chosen as a way of implicating Kapelow in the project’s narrative; though it wasn’t overtly a comment on his personal experience, his history and sensibility around suicide inevitably became the wellspring of the project, its beating heart. 

This landscape that I’m exploring is where I’m from, and it’s part of a core of my identity in a lot of ways,” Kapelow reflects. “I think at the back of my mind was that initial seed of trying to do something with all this angst and grief, and do something that someone would find helpful.”

Following a suicide attempt, Paco’s neighbors sought help from the church to remove his access to lethal means. With the aid of pastor Craig Lang, Paco agreed to surrender the ammunition for his fi (...)
Tristan Leyba, 16, worked with Morgan at J&Y Auto and received a farewell text from him the night that Morgan ended his life. Leyba and Morgan wore matching rings to signify their friendship.
Jack Diamond, 84, stands at the cemetery in Gabriella, a western replica town built to stage historic-gunfight reenactments and serve as a set for movie productions. Diamond lives and works in the (...)

Throughout the work, Kapelow found himself encountering uncanny parallels between his own story and those of the people he met. Meeting a cowboy called Ron, for example, was the first time he had met somebody who shared his father’s earlier experience of surviving a suicide attempt, only to be left with facial disfigurement. 

When that happened to my dad I was only eight years old,” Kapelow says, “so I don’t know that I got to engage with him about it in the same way… Meeting Ron was very powerful for me. I got to really ask a lot of questions to a person who had been through that process first hand.” 

Unexpectedly, the work was allowing him to process and examine elements of his past from almost two decades ago. “I didn’t set out to have it be about catharsis, but there was a lot of powerful reckoning that occurred.”

And, inevitably, throughout the making of the work, Kapelow had to negotiate feelings of overwhelm relating to the inescapable heaviness of the subject matter and the remoteness of the work. He was alone, staying in his subject’s homes, with no access to internet or cell phone services; no recourse to networks of support. 

There is this real emphasis in photography, and filmmaking as well, of going all the way going all-in. I felt very much compelled to go as deep as possible. But I definitely hit a wall,” he remembers. “How do you deal with this stuff, when you are going for immersion, and you’re immersed in trauma constantly? Being in the mentorship program during that period was an absolute blessing,” Kapelow says. 

Firearms on display at a local gun show. In 1994, the Catron county commission voted unanimously to pass a nonbinding resolution stating that every household should possess a firearm and ammunition (...)
After a suicide attempt, Rusty Stewart, 47, a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Quemado, was placed under observation at a hospital and told that “people who commit suicide go straight to hell. (...)

"How do you deal with this stuff, when you are going for immersion, and you’re immersed in trauma constantly?"


Peter van Agtmael, a guest mentor, helped him establish some boundaries and limits, allowing him to compartmentalize the work from the rest of his psychological life, and find coping strategies. These strategies included finding separate accommodation from his subjects, making more regular calls to friends and family, and shorter, more focussed trips, allowing him to go deep over a shorter period, rather than expecting himself to sustain his energy over an open-ended journey.

The mentorship also recalled the collaborative elements of filmmaking: all the benefits of consistent feedback from peers, the chance to have one’s thinking or approach challenged. And it drew on skills that he’d learned in that field, such as the importance of interviewing his subjects as well as making their portraits. 

Recording interviews was something that Meiselas, especially, emphasized, and Kapelow ended up collecting 20 hours of interviews over the course of the project. 

One of the things that Susan and Matt really encourage is just to be a collector of information, to gather everything you possibly can, regardless of the medium of that information,” he recalls. “Because even if it doesn’t directly make its way into the work, it will indirectly inform the work. And that proved to be an extremely important lesson for me.”

Kapelow would snap photographs on his iPhone, building up a folder of sketches from the field. “Even though those images are not in the work, they directly informed the approach to it,” he says. “This is a principle that we talk about in film all the time: if the world that you’re building ends precisely at the edge of the frame, the audience can feel that. But if the world you build — even in your own mind — extends far beyond the parameters of what you see, that translates to the audience.”

In the absence of formal behavioral-health resources, churches like the Fence Lake Community Church help people cope with suicidal ideation or grief. “A major part of my ministry—I call it group th (...)

"Susan and Matt really encourage you to be a collector of information, to gather everything you possibly can, regardless of the medium."


When Time published the story, Kapelow was surprised and heartened by the extent of the positive feedback. His subjects in Catron County were happy with the piece, and glad to have been involved. Friends got in touch with stories of their own relationship to suicide, stories that Kapelow hadn’t heard before. Even so, the photographer is painfully aware that the publication of the piece was far from resolving its subject matter. 

The day after we published the article, there was another suicide death in the county,” Kapelow tells me. It was followed by another, just a few weeks later, in December. “It was a bit of a splash of cold water: just realizing I have to be aware of the fact that I’m not going to just change this issue overnight by making work about it. That was tough to hear.” 

The project continues. “It just shows that this work needs to keep going on, and that it’s far from over,” Kapelow says, resolved. “That’s why I say this is a lifelong ambition for me.”


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