I remember the day David Buckel killed himself; I remember feeling almost incomprehensibly sad. Sad for this stranger who set himself on fire because of his own sadness about the environmental devastation we are inflicting upon the Earth, and sad because of my grief over the same thing. I understood him. Not entirely; I have not (yet) had suicidal thoughts because of environmental devastation, but there are days when I go to sleep weeping, days when I struggle to go out into the world and pretend to be normal, days when I want so badly to shake all humans on the planet hard and scream what the fuck is wrong with us?
Ecocide and suicide are inextricably linked: we contribute to our own suicide as individuals, as communities, and as a species with every ecocide. For a long while, we could decimate species into extinction (say, the passenger pigeon) or destroy vast ecosystems completely (say, the tall grass prairies of the United States, along with the buffalo, antelope, prairie dogs, and wildflowers that went with them) and continue to exist as a species ourselves without much obvious damage (at least, to our colonizer eyes).
That time is now over. If it is not obvious to you that every ecosystem devastated, every species pushed to extinction, every selfish ecodical act we perpetrate in the name of “comfort”, “economic growth”, and “corporate profits” is another amputation to our own human bodies in the long slow suicide we are in the midst of committing, you simply haven’t been paying attention. No, it’s more than that. You are willfully not paying attention. You are working hard to avoid the truth. You are actively looking away from the carnage.
No one was there in Prospect Park to see or photograph David Buckel’s last moments on Earth. What was left behind was only a black spot in the ground that quickly grew over with grass. Has anyone other than his friends and family really had much of a thought for David Buckel since the news moved on to other topics? Probably not.
Photographer Joel Sternfeld was in the park later the same day that David killed himself. He has returned to the park many times over the past year to photograph that spot in the park, and has collected the images in a book Our Loss.
These images would not normally mean much of anything to those of us not familiar with Prospect Park, but the knowledge of what happened there in April 2018 imbue them with a haunting loneliness. Why did Joel Sternfeld spend a year taking photographs of the same spot? “In the end, I guess the same logic that I presume impelled David Buckel impelled me. There’s no way to bring the gravity of the situation to people’s attention. Human life is in danger, and there’s no way to make it visible. The big tropes of climate change—starving polar bears, cracked earth in Africa, glacial runoff in Greenland—there are just so many of those pictures one can look at without becoming inured.”