On Representing (and Misrepresenting) Gun Culture through Photographs: The Void

Garret O. Hansen was introduced to American gun culture when he took a job as an assistant professor of photography at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Once there he was surprised to find that “it was not uncommon for friends and colleagues, including those of a liberal tilt, to fire off a few rounds after work before grabbing a beer.”

As I did a few years earlier, Hansen found that target shooting at the range is normal for a large swath of the American population. Hansen himself tried shooting and subsequently thought to combine the shooting he had discovered (with guns) with the shooting he did professionally (with cameras).

His ongoing collection of works, under the umbrella title “HAIL,” is currently being exhibited in museums and galleries around the United States. Hansen begins his description of “HAIL” by noting: “Roughly 40% of US households have a gun and there are enough guns – approximately 300 million – to arm nearly every man, woman, and child in the country.”

The first series of photos in HAIL is called The Void. Hansen continues his description: “At the core of The Void series is a desire to consider these facts [about gun ownership] and to create a set of images that speaks to their implications.” There is a dark foreboding in this description, so that we can already sense what is coming, but the photos are worth considering even still.

Garrett O. Hansen, “The Void,” Used with permission.

The photos in The Void highlight the dynamic relationship between destruction and creation. Hansen says:

Each of the images is created from individual bullet holes. While shooting is fundamentally a destructive act, by bringing these holes into the darkroom, enlarging them and then processing and printing the results, I am able to balance this destruction with creation. The viewer is presented with images that speak to the sublime – they are both attractive and terrifying at the same time. In many ways this reflects our own opinions of guns in America, a country where the debate between rights and controls continues to rage.

This is both a profound insight into gun culture and a misrepresentation of it.

The destructive power of firearms is real. As Tom Givens said at the instructor development course I observed, “Teaching firearms is a matter of life and death. . . . These [guns] are deadly weapons. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be useful to us at all.”

Working in the liminal zone between life and death can be a profound, even religious or mystical, experience. This is what Hansen characterizes as “the sublime,” something that is “both attractive and terrifying at the same time.” In this description Hansen actually nearly replicates the theologian Rudolf Otto’s description of God or “The Holy” as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans – a mysterious force that is both awful and attractive. It inspires awe, much like firing a gun can.

The profound, even religious, nature of having the power of life and death in your hands is again capture by Tom Givens when he tells his instructor candidates: “You have the power of the ancient gods – to point our finger and make someone die. You can point your finger at someone and make them die.”

This truth notwithstanding, in characterizing shooting as “fundamentally a destructive act,” Hansen fails to capture the fun side of shooting that he observed himself upon his arrival in Kentucky. Certainly no one would characterize throwing darts or target archery as “fundamentally destructive acts.” Or throwing a ball down an alley to knock over bowling pins or pitching balls at pyramids of milk bottles as “fundamentally destructive acts.”

In my following two posts, I look at the two other parts of Hansen’s HAIL series: Silhouette and Memorial.

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