Kathy Shorr's photos of gun violence survivors show the shattered lives behind the statistics
My ex-girlfriend’s parents used to a have a striking poster in their townhouse, on the stairs between the kitchen and the living room. Arranged in neat horizontal rows were black and white images of all the Americans who had died from gunshot wounds in a single year. Some of the grainy photos were slightly larger than the others. Many were just silhouettes, but all bore names and a short description of the circumstances in which the person had died. I would stop to read a different obituary almost every time I passed. Seen as a whole, this 1970s or 80s poster was sobering yet beautiful – a vintage design object, and a reminder that guns are an issue that has long plagued America.
In contrast, New York photographer Kathy Shorr’s new book, SHOT, is stark. It brings the issue of gun violence out of the world of statistics, putting scars, missing limbs and shattered lives firmly in view by getting up close and personal with its victims. Over two years, Schorr travelled to 45 US cities, covering over 100,000 miles in her search for survivors of gun violence. The result is a moving portrait of a deeply divisive – and deadly – issue in modern America.
GOOD TROUBLE: How did the SHOT project start?
Kathy Shorr: The project evolved from a number of different thoughts I had about the subject of survivors. Gun violence was something that seemed to be happening with more frequency and I wondered about those who had survived shootings. We always heard about those who died but never about what happened to those who lived. It seemed as if they were to just pick up the physical and emotional pieces and go on with their lives. I felt it would be important to show them and hear what they had to say.
I myself had had a gun pointed at my young daughter and me in a home invasion years before and knew what it felt like to have someone have the power to control your destiny and possibly the destiny of someone you loved. It was probably the most frightening thing that ever happened to me and we were lucky. The robbers did not hurt us and just left with some money and valuables. But the emotional impact of a gun pointed at you is a feeling that stays.
I also felt that our country had become so polarized that people could not talk to each other any more... they only spoke at each other. Gun violence had become an issue that had no gray – only black and white. I thought if I could approach the subject from a different way, and show how it affected human beings from across America, from all walks of life, all colours, all ages, many different situations, high and low profile shootings, that people would be able to see the subject with empathy and perhaps create a dialogue.
Is there any common thread linking all these survivors?
It is hard to speak for 101 people, but the majority of survivors are courageous and strong individuals that came through their tragedy and became stronger, wiser, powerful and more empathetic. They want to help so others do not have to go through what they did. They are remarkable people.
What was the project like for you emotionally?
The stories are tragic and sad, but the survivors are inspiring and make you feel very grateful to have met them. I became aware of just how many crazy people there are in this world… people who think nothing of shooting someone who made them angry, got in their way, caused them a problem or even loved them. But the flip side of this coin is just how many good people there are in this world… SHOT is filled with heroes.
Do any of the survivor’s stories stand out or resonate with you, personally?
I never pick any one story as I don't think it is fair… as all the stories are unique and cinematic in their own way. I do say the issue of domestic violence is something that stands out – over 20 per cent of the SHOT survivors are domestic violence survivors and it is so hard to understand how someone that loved you, or perhaps still loves you, would try to kill you. They always mean to kill, too, as the domestic violence survivors are all shot in head or torso. They are not shot in the arm or leg to scare them – the shooter means to kill this person they "love".
Gun control in the US seems to have fallen into a pit there’s no way out of. Do you see any hope on the horizon?
I believe the people who can begin to sort this out are responsible gun owners. Most gun owners want responsible gun laws. This is a subject that is not black and white. Now is the time to get away from the extreme positions and talk about the grey areas. Many of the survivors in SHOT are gun owners and one is an NRA member.
As an issue, do you see it as part of a wider problem in America today?
I see this as an extension of what I have touched on above – the inability for people to talk and learn from those who think differently than they do. The extremely angry people controlling the entire dialogue by name-calling, disrespecting others, yelling and believing in the righteousness of only their position. Unless we can start to listen and learn from each other, we are headed to a very dark place where we won't be able to solve any problems.
Top image: Shot through the forehead at point-blank range, Sara was sitting in her mother’s car when a carjacker stole it. He drove to a field and raped her, and then made her kneel down and count to ten before attempting to execute her. Kenner, Louisiana, 1994
All images from SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America by Kathy Shorr, published by powerHouse Books. Launch event at their store in Dumbo, NYC, on Thursday April 13, 7–9pm – more here
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Writer, editor and Super/Collider founder, based in Hong Kong.