Books

101 Unflinching Portraits of Survivors of US Gun Violence

Kathy Shorr’s photography book helps to de-normalize what has become painfully normal

Sahar Khoshakhlagh, who was shot in Times Square, NY, by a police officer aiming at someone else (all images courtesy of powerHouse Books)

“Scars are stories,” says Megan Hobson in the new book SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America; she also appears on the book’s cover. Her story is briefly told within the book’s pages: The Floridian was driving when she was shot in the pelvis by a gang member wielding an AK-47. Her scars and her limp are visual reminders of the violence she survived. As SHOT documents through its 101 “visual narratives,” Hobson is far from alone. 

SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America

The book has been several years in the making. Kathy Shorr started the photography project in 2013, using a Kickstarter campaign along the way to help fund her work. Speaking with Hyperallergic, Shorr called her style “a mix of documentary, street, and portrait photography.” Indeed, there’s a blend of naturalism and artful posing in these images. Most of the subjects face the camera squarely, often calling attention to the parts of their bodies that bear their wounds. The violence of shooting a gun is, of course, a far cry from the act of shooting a camera, but there’s a physical directness to both that shows up in these unflinching photographs.

Several patterns crop up in the book: how common it is for women to be shot by partners and ex-partners, bullets taken by police in the line of duty, the random victims as well as the (generally) young men involved in street violence, the seeming inevitability of accidents involving loaded guns, and the ease with which weapons can turn hate crimes deadly. The biographical snippets of the people photographed also damningly demonstrate the extent of racist assumptions among law enforcement: In a couple of cases, police initially believed the (black male) victims to be the shooters.

Karina Sartiaguin, who was the victim of a drive-by shooting outside her school in Aurora, CO, at age 16

The settings for the images are deliberately mundane. Shorr “photographed most people where they were shot to show how shootings happen in ‘normal,’ everyday places that we all frequent in our lives: our homes, cars, churches, schools, gyms, movie theaters, shopping centers, etc.” She appreciated the unpredictability of the light, weather, and other conditions in the locations where the photos were taken. “A studio photographer would hate to do what I do,” she noted.

The book’s best photos are the ones that offer some context for their subjects: a family member in the frame, a lovingly tended lawn in the background, clothes that hint at an occupation. The subjects of these photos become more than just victims, defined by more than the places where their shootings took place. Also memorable are the images with a surprising bodily element. For instance, in one photo, a woman paints a portrait using a brush held in her mouth, its vivid blue echoed in the more muted tones of the painting. In another, the subject’s mouth is being held open by dental equipment.

Shorr recounted the background of another surprising teeth-focused image: “Janine was a corrections officer, and her husband, who was a corrections officer captain here in NYC at Rikers Island, shot her in the face, causing her to lose her upper teeth on the left side of her mouth.” She added: “Janine is a beautiful woman, and she said to me that she wanted to show people what he did to her. Looking at her face, you would never know that she was shot, so I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. She then took the dental appliance out of her mouth and held it in her hand. That was an extremely powerful moment.”

Photographs like these engage with bodies and their physicality in interesting ways. This isn’t to discount the book’s plentiful images of scars and restricted mobility, which together showcase the resilience of the human body. But demonstrating the less obvious physical impacts of gunshots makes for more effective images overall. Of course, the impact of a shooting isn’t solely physical. So the text from the survivors helps to contextualize the deep and lasting effects of their encounters with gun violence.

Shirley Justice, who was shot by her ex-husband using two guns, in Indianapolis, IN

So much of this style of photography depends on research — not into techniques and visual specifications, but into subjects. Especially toward the beginning of the project, Shorr spent a great deal of time researching organizations working on gun violence and contacting reporters, lawyers, doctors, and law enforcement. She also got in touch with survivors of high-profile mass attacks: the shooting during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado; the shooting at a public event with Congresswoman Gabby Giffords near Tucson, Arizona; and the shooting by an Army major at the Fort Hood military base in Texas.

Another widely reported mass shooting took place at a Jewish community center in my hometown of Granada Hills, California. Few people in Granada Hills talk about this attack now, 18 years later, but one of the benefits of a work like SHOT is its ability to de-normalize what has become painfully normal: It was a surprise to see one of the children shot that day, who is now a gun-reform advocate in his 20s, in these pages.

SHOT demonstrates the ways that gun violence touches every corner of the country. As noted by another of the photographed survivors, Mariam Pare, “I had lived my entire life thinking that was the type of thing that happened to other people in other parts of the country, or to people in books or TV. Until one day the unthinkable happened … and it didn’t happen to somebody else, it happened to me.”

Antonius Wiriadjaja, who was shot randomly in Brooklyn, NY

SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America is now available from powerHouse Books.

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