New York native Kathy Shorr traveled the United States photographing 101 individuals of different ages, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds, all of them with something in common; surviving gun violence.
In 2013 she embarked on SHOT, a series that puts a face to the harrowing statistics of gun violence in the U.S.
Shorr is no stranger to this harsh reality herself, being robbed at gunpoint at her apartment in Greenwich Village in the 80s when her daughter was just a toddler.
“There are no words to describe the helplessness you feel. It’s something you never want to experience again.” Shorr said in an interview with American Illustration/American Photography (AI-AP) online.
SHOT features 101 survivors of both high and low profile shootings mostly photographed at the very location of the attack. Ordinary places that we all visit daily like movie theaters, shopping centers, and churches acquire a completely different dimension when Shorr renders them as the backdrop of these life-changing experiences.
The participants are aged from 8 to 80 and come from all positions of the ideological spectrum, including NRA members and staunch gun control advocates. Far from attempting to paint a biased and polarizing view of one of the most contentious issues of contemporary America, SHOT renders survivors with dignity and makes us realize how close we all are to going through a tragedy of this dimension.
The book is the product of more than two years of work travelling across 45 American cities and was financed with Shorr’s own funds, plus the help of a Kickstarter campaign.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Shorr about this painfully relatable, and necessary work.
In concept, SHOT is a documentary project, but your subjects are captured with a clear aesthetic direction. How do you manage to respect the emotional state of survivors while working on the formal aspects of the photograph like the pose, composition, lighting, etc?
I like to call this “guerrilla photography” as it is all done on the spot, in the moment. The survivors and I all had previous email correspondence telling them about the project and coordinating dates & times to meet.
Once we set up our appointment, I would either meet them at their home or ask them to suggest a coffee shop to talk prior to photographing. This is really the most important part of the “shoot” and I would spend anywhere from 1/2 hr to 3 hours talking with the various survivors, getting to know them a bit and for them to be comfortable with me before going to the location to photograph.
Most of the survivors were photographed at the actual physical location where they were shot. I had no prior knowledge of these places other than that they may have been a street corner, shopping mall etc. So when we arrived at the location, I had to quickly assess the place and determine the best possible spot for the photograph. Also, when we are outside —most photos were taken outside— the weather is another factor that was out of my control and unpredictable. If it is rainy, cold, too sunny, it is what it is.
I have flown to a location city for one or two days to photograph survivors and usually had 3-5 survivors scheduled who lived close to the city. There was no cancellation or do-over. I had to make the best of the situation given to me. A studio photographer would hate to do what I do and I of course, never work in a studio. It’s whatever you are comfortable with and I guess the mystery of this type of photography appeals to me. All lighting is natural light and I always work by myself without an assistant.
What’s the usual reaction from survivors when they first look at themselves in your photos?
Well, there were 101 participants, so there were a variety of reactions. Most of the reactions were very positive. I would send each participant files of anywhere from 5-20 images.
Sometimes the survivor would prefer another photo other than the one that I chose for the project but I did not change my choice. I did have one woman say she did not like the photo that I took of her. For whatever reason, photographing 101 people will naturally have some photographs better than others, that is just the nature of photography. One thing that I did not do was choose the best people whom I photographed. I only photographed 101 people and all of those 101 survivors are in the project.
Do you think the dialogue you’ve helped start can lead to policy change? What else do you believe has to be done to stop this unnecessary tragedy from being a daily occurrence in American culture?
There will be no policy change on guns until we have a new president and a new administration that is not in the pocket of the NRA. The NRA contributed over 180 million dollars to the campaigns of candidates that back their policies. Thirty million of that money went to Trump. The greed of these politicians lets an organization with 5 million members control the dialogue for a country of 325 million people. To add to that: most gun owners want responsible gun laws.
Have you been contacted by anybody in office because of the media impact of the project?
I have sent my book to a number of legislators. I received a few thank you notes including one from Marco Rubio which was quite unexpected.
What were you doing just before you began working on the project? We understand you were disenchanted with photography for a while…
Before SHOT, I was working on a number of smaller documentaries, including one which Feature Shoot featured a few years back called BFF. I also did another called 63 Scholes Street which was about the hipster area of Brooklyn which was and continues to be a neighborhood with many immigrants. My father’s family settled in this part of Brooklyn in the 1880’s and I was very curious about the history of this neighborhood.
While working on a project called Home(less) at a family shelter in Brooklyn, I decided that from now on, I would put my photographic efforts into endeavors that attempted to help others or to bring awareness to issues that needed attention through my work.
The period of disenchantment you are speaking about proceeded these projects and it followed a very successful series that I did called Limousine when I had just gotten out of The School of Visual Arts. I felt frustrated about the life of a freelance photographer. Some months I had work and others I didn’t. It became overwhelming and I decided to become involved with other creative endeavors.
After about ten years, I came back to photography but only as something that I would do just for me. I did not try to get photographic jobs but I started to work on my own personal projects without the pressure of looking for photographic work for hire. It was so liberating. I decided to teach photography as this was something that I enjoyed and I could count on as a steady source of income.
What is the target audience for SHOT? Who did you make this book for?
The audience can be quite varied. The book is not targeting any specific group. The series has many gun owners that were shot including an NRA member. I did not want this to be a book against guns.
As I stated before most gun owners want responsible gun laws. It is my belief that these gun owners are the ones who will change the dialogue about guns in America. We have not heard too much from them and it is really important for them to speak up and out about the need for responsible gun laws. I don’t just speak to the converted, I speak to everyone.
Did working on SHOT leave you with a sense of hope, or on the contrary, did it leave you with the impression that the situation is far from changing?
America has become a country of black & white, —of extreme opinions on everything— all of the grey has been taken out of issues. Debating has been reduced to name-calling and not listening to what others have to say if they have a different viewpoint. Compromise must be made on issues with vastly different perspectives.
There are parts of this debate that should be very easy for people to agree on but with the stranglehold that the NRA has on it’s cadre of politicians, we can’t go there. That’s why all of the lobbyists for the NRA must be voted out of office so that sensibility and responsibility can return to this subject. Should any civilian have the right to own an assault rifle?
Do Americans react to SHOT differently than people from other countries?
SHOT has traveled around the world and people are always baffled at why this is happening in America and nothing is being done about it. I have spoken in France and Germany and experienced firsthand this disbelief and head shaking on how this continues in America without any measures taken to stop it. But people here in America ask the same question.
After one of my talks in Germany, I was taken to a wonderful high school in the middle of the Black Forest where I spoke to the students and they asked me questions in their perfect English. One teenage boy got up and asked what they could do to help change things. In one of those moments of “think globally, act locally”, I explained to him that 30% of the assault rifles that come to America are manufactured about 30 minutes from their school in Oberndorf Germany. I thanked him for his concern and said that it might be nice for the students at this school to write some letters to protest the sale of assault rifles to private citizens. We are all connected and we all need each other to use the power that we have to affect change.
What can a normal citizen do to help?
Vote those politicians who are being bankrolled by the NRA out of office.
What’s next in your career? Are you working on something right now?
I am working on two projects right now. The first is a photographic project which will be a trilogy of three small American cities; the first city is Homestead Florida which I am currently doing.
The second is a big effort: I am working with a team of designers and creatives to launch a new project called, SHOT: We the People. (I am not photographing for this project; this will be a huge crowdsourcing website).
SHOT: We the People provides a platform and archive where all can contribute, curate and download personal experiences and expressions of the national public health crisis that is gun violence. SWTP believes that by enabling Americans to engage each other through photographs, video, audio and text that a common ground for action can be found by people free of political and special interest doctrine.
Even if you have been fortunate not to know someone that was killed or injured by guns, it does not mean that you have not suffered the psychological effects of gun violence. No one in America is safe from gun violence and we all live in its shadow.
The site is expected to be up by the end of this year.
Kathy’s book, SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America is available on Amazon.