Faces of Fortitude gives hope

Emily Eekhoff

Stripping away sadness with stories of strength

In a world that either hides or romanticizes the feelings associated with suicide, many are finally coming to realize the horrible implications of ignoring discussion for those who are at risk.

Mariangela Abeo refuses to ignore the reality of suicide. She has begun one of the most difficult, yet most important conversations surrounding the dark feelings of those who suffer from mental illness with her photography project “Faces of Fortitude.”

FortFaces _ B&W _ Courtesy of Mariangela Abeo-1
Courtesy of Mariangela Abeo

“Faces of Fortitude” highlights individuals who have begun the healing process of suicide and mental illness through beautiful imagery to show their stories of victory.

“This is attempts, this is loss. This is being someone’s savior; someone who has been going to those dark places, but hasn’t maybe attempted so they don’t think that their darkness is as relatable,” Abeo said.

Abeo recognized her own need to vent and heal from the trauma of the loss of her brother to suicide and of her own attempt to take her life. She has made this space for those suffering from abuse and mental illness to tell their stories in a stigma-free zone, allowing for full honesty and healing.

In the process of doing this, Abeo began a photo series as an avenue for the healing of survivors and those affected by mental illness in the fall of 2017, in which she interviews the survivors and tells their stories through words and beautiful images on Facebook and Instagram.

The power that these stories carry are ones of courage and the strength of demasking the stigma and pain around one’s depression or past abuse.

Throughout her life, Abeo has been behind the camera producing works, whether it be documenting her daughter’s life as a dancer at The Pacific Northwest Ballet or producing music videos for her husband, Ryan Abeo, known as RA Scion.

One day, it seemed as though fate had stepped in and told her the next step for her life. While at work at CreativeLive, a local photo studio, a visiting speaker presented an exciting idea.

Stacy Pearsall came to share about her work in The Veteran Portrait Project. Pearsall is a war veteran, wounded while serving in Afghanistan.

From that point forward, she vowed to take ugly, broken situations and turn them into stories of immense strength. She now travels the globe taking pictures of wounded veterans and listening to their stories of healing. While at Abeo’s workplace, she inspired them to use trauma and turn it into something productive for their lives.

Although Abeo was not required to attend this discussion, it touched her in more ways that she could have imagined. She walked away from her day at work feeling inspired and motivated towards action.

After hearing Pearsall speak, ideas swirled in her mind about her own photo series.
She talked with her late brother’s best friend, who finally convinced her that it is her duty to serve others in this way of giving them a safe space to open up about their trauma. She knew this was the right thing to do for others.

“So I had an old camera, and all that Pearsall had advised for me starting the project was to have perfect lighting,” Abeo said.

Once Abeo had achieved the right lighting and began on photography to feature the individuals for “Faces of Fortitude,” Pearsall told her, “The first one needs to be of you.”

Naturally, Abeo froze, because even though she knew her story was significant and required of her project, it was still frightening for her to become vulnerable and speak about her own story.

Once Abeo posted her story and self-portrait to social media, it seemed to open the floodgates for conversation. It allowed many to share their hurt in a public way and heal from it. The project started as a simple idea, and has now blossomed into a passion project.

When Abeo first began “Faces of Fortitude,” she did not understand exactly how it would serve others. She now sees, however, through overwhelming emails and messages on social media, just how impactful her project has become.

Abeo admires the courage people have to tell their stories of trauma or darkness, and the ways that it inspires others to share their own stories to begin the healing process.

“Depression and suicide is such an isolating thing, and this project is letting them feel less alone,” Abeo said.

For Abeo, it feels fulfilling to do good for other people, but she recognizes that in this position she has a great responsibility to carry these stories of hurt.

Although Abeo has gained a great deal of strength through this project, she still faces discouragement from those who are against her mission. This often comes in the form of graphic messages or verbal abuse through direct messages on social media.

Abeo’s therapist compared this to a hot coal, saying that it represents trauma or abuse, and the person who cannot stand to hold the coal any longer will just toss it to the next available person that is willing to listen. Often, the reactions can be unpredictable.

Abeo has realized that it isn’t her job to counsel these people, but rather to listen, hold their hands, and let them know that they are being heard.

Abeo hopes to bring about conversations of recovery and resilience. She refuses to accept stories if there isn’t a silver lining, because she believes that in all situations there will be hope. It may just take that person time to recognize it.

At times Abeo is forced to turn people away because they are too fresh from their trauma, and have not yet learned how to deal with it.

She does this because she believes there is strength for those who have received healing from their mental illness or abuse, and it will give hope to others who want to make something productive out of their pain.

Abeo’s motivation to begin shows her strength and compassion to help others come to heal, and turn their pain into something purposeful.

“I want to provide a safe space where people feel that they can fully begin to heal and rise from the brokenness they have been feeling. Everyone deserves that.”

Mariangela Abeo plans to display her work at CreativeLive in Seattle either this month or next. For more information and stories of strength, visit Abeo’s Facebook page or Instagram at “facesoffortitude.”