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How one photographer’s daily obsession with the Golden Gate Bridge saves lives

Over six years, photographer Jake Ricker has witnessed the spectrum of humanity on the sidewalk that spans the Golden Gate Bridge. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

The Golden Gate Bridge, undeniably emblematic of San Francisco, funnels over 30 million people in and out of the city every year. If you’ve made a stop at the postcard destination in the last six years, you’ve more than likely caught a glimpse of Jake Ricker—and, chances are, he has taken a photo of you. 

Ricker, a San Francisco street photographer and a self-proclaimed all-or-nothing guy, has spent the last six years–increasing in frequency over time–documenting the Golden Gate Bridge on 35 mm film. Based on his recounting of the endeavor, Ricker has probably spent somewhere around 2,000 days—and taken tens of millions of steps—on the 1.7-mile stretch of sidewalk that lines the most famous segment of the Pacific Coast Highway.

It’s an ambitious, costly challenge, during which Ricker has amassed tens of thousands of photos and seen everything from protests and marathons to marriage proposals and tender notes etched into the bridge’s International Orange coating

“It’s like I’ve crossed paths with millions of people, whether I’ve taken their photo or not,” Ricker told The Standard. “And I’m probably in the background of, like, a million tourists’ photos.” 

Jake Ricker looks through the viewfinder of his camera on the bridge on Dec. 12.
Photographer Jake Ricker's daily efforts to document the events and people that span the stretch of the bridge provide a unique view of the iconic San Francisco landmark. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Every morning around 10 a.m., Ricker drives to the bridge from the Outer Richmond apartment that he shares with his partner, a compact Leica camera strapped to his chest and a granola bar in his pocket. He often doesn’t leave until dark, usually with several completed rolls of film.

Anyone who has taken a walk across the bridge knows that it’s often not the leisurely stroll that postcards would suggest. Ricker admits that, some days, the wind and biting chill get to him, but at the end of the day, the sacrifice is only minor when he looks at the bigger picture.

“If it was just 70 and sunny every day, it would look like all the photos were taken on the same day,” Ricker said. “When it’s foggy and you can only see like 50 feet in front of you, … it really shows how different the same place can be.”

Ricker, now 36, moved to San Francisco from Mesa, Arizona, about 10 years ago for a change of pace. Prior to devoting himself wholeheartedly to this project, he did freelance photo and video work, and before that, he was a bike messenger. It’s a great way to be employed while still being outside all day with a camera around his neck, he said. 

Without that freedom, he gets antsy and irritable.

“I don’t take photos because I want to,” Ricker said. “I take photos because I have to.” 

Jake Ricker stands on the pedestrian walkway of the bridge on Dec. 12.
Jake Ricker has been documenting the Golden Gate Bridge through film photography for six years, focusing on candid moments and the endless variations of humanity passing by. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

A View Worth Obsessing Over

There is no shortage of images of the Golden Gate Bridge. Like the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon or the Pyramids of Giza, it’s one of the world’s most recognizable icons. But Ricker wants to explore the landmark’s allure beyond a basic, picturesque composition. 

He instead turns his lens to the people who breathe life into the bridge every day. With a nimble and meticulous eye, he photographs candid moments that could never be replicated, like an expertly timed snap of a car flying down the highway with someone’s gleefully windblown face peering out of the sunroof. Or an anonymous pair of bare feet pointed toward the water with a dejected pair of heels tossed to their side. 

Selected Photos From the Project

“Anything can happen at any time,” Ricker said. “If you just kind of post up in one spot and let the world come to you or pass you by, it’s kind of wild what things unfold in front of you.”

The project started budding around November 2017. By early 2018, Ricker was dedicating a few days a week to shooting. After the world locked down in 2020, he was there every day for upwards of 10 hours at a time–most days, not even taking an hour to grab food or water. In the last three years, Ricker has not missed more than 15 days of shooting. 

According to Ricker, he’s only been able to pull it off through hefty sacrifices of his time and finances. Savings from previous jobs and credit cards have propelled him, though he’ll sparingly take on a side job or sell photo prints to supplement. Day to day, he lives frugally, splitting rent with his partner and abstaining from many of the recreational expenses that can add up in a spendy spot like San Francisco. 

“I’ve never gone to barbecues or birthday parties or any of that stuff,” Ricker reflected. “If it’s not after 6 p.m. or something, you won’t see me there, you know?” 

Jake Ricker loads a fresh roll of film into his camera while on the bridge.
Although Jake Ricker admits the increasing cost of 35mm film and developing it are the most prohibitive aspects of completing his project, he remains committed to film's aesthetic and its immutable nature. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

An Unexpected New Purpose

Over the years, Ricker has documented the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge Safety Net, a suicide deterrent that has become a driving factor in his work. In his time on the bridge, Ricker says he’s intervened to some degree with about 90 people who he noticed were in need. 

“If I had a friend or family member out there, or if I was out there, I’d wish someone would intervene or say hi or ask if I’m OK,” Ricker said.

The compulsive nature of Ricker’s relationship to the bridge can in part be boiled down to the Golden Rule. Treating others as he likes to be treated, he stops to pick up litter and chats with bridge patrol officers, cyclists and pedestrians daily. 

Jake Ricker, left, talks with a Golden Gate Bridge painter named Jay on the bridge’s pedestrian walkway on Monday, Dec. 12, 2023.
In spending every day on the bridge taking photos for his project, Jake Ricker has gotten to know many of the people who work there on a daily basis, such as painters, maintenance workers and patrol officers. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

On one occasion, while Ricker was still balancing his bridge project with part-time freelance photography and video work, he turned down a job because, at the time, he simply felt like it was a day he should be out shooting at the bridge. 

That same day, he, with the assistance of bridge patrol officers, helped stop someone from jumping after they had already climbed over the bridge’s 4-foot guard rail. 

“Little things like that just kind of made me take the project more seriously and just made me feel like I was doing something that was way more important than working on some commercial,” he said.

The Golden Gate Bridge’s Safety Net, still under construction, is viewable from the bridge on Dec. 12.
The Golden Gate Bridge’s Safety Net, still under construction, is tentatively scheduled to be complete by the end of this year, though it is a development that has been delayed repeatedly since work started in 2017. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Though the net’s completion is tentatively set for the end of the month, many suicide-prevention advocates have called it long overdue and criticized the repeated delays that have pushed the installation back since the project started in 2017. 

In the meantime, Ricker is a familiar and helpful presence to many bridge patrol officers, according to Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, the bridge’s director of public affairs. 

“Our Bridge Security department receives dozens of calls for service from the public every day, including reports of people in distress,” Cosulich-Schwartz told The Standard in a text message. “It is very helpful when visitors serve as extra eyes and ears for our employees.” 

Plastic bags and boxes of undeveloped film sit in Jake Ricker’s fridge in his Outer Richmond apartment in San Francisco on Monday, Dec. 12, 2023.
Jake Ricker keeps about 1,000 rolls of undeveloped film in his fridge. The total cost to develop his ever-growing collection would be over $10,000. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

When Ricker’s photo project will end is still up in the air. The completion of the net felt like it could be a natural stopping point, but its delayed completion has perpetuated uncertainty. 

All of what Ricker shot from 2018 through 2020 has been developed and digitized— around 60,000 photos, in all—but that leaves the entirety of his efforts since 2021 largely untouched.

Many are developed but not yet digitized, and about 1,000 rolls are completely undeveloped and taking up gallon-size Ziploc bags’ worth of space in his fridge. At 36 frames each, that’s 36,000 images, give or take, chilling next to cartons of almond milk.

Plastic bags and boxes of undeveloped film are laid out on the floor in Ricker's Outer Richmond apartment in San Francisco on Monday, Dec. 12, 2023.
For Jake Ricker, developing his backlog of film is a lower priority than continuing his daily mission of traveling to the bridge and capturing the photos themselves. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“I think if you look at a body of work like this, hopefully, other people are intrigued by doing something similar,” Ricker said. “And who knows what they can accomplish with it and who knows who they can help along the way.”

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call or text "988" any time day or night to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or chat online.

Morgan Ellis can be reached at