Portraits of Americans and their guns
British-born photojournalist Charles Ommanney set out to capture the essence of one of the most intimate relationships that many Americans share—a love affair with their guns.
In a photo series Ommanney’s portraiture of everyday Americans with their firearms is at once provocative and nuanced, an antidote to the often caricatured portrayal of gun owners as snarling gun-nuts or right-wing radicals.
“I was essentially looking for normal people, people like you and me,” Ommanney said of the project. “The only difference being that they live in a community or in an environment where shooting and owning guns is a way of life. I wanted to speak to people who weren’t going to start predictably talking about the far-right and FOX news and how their Second Amendment rights were being violated by Obama, which is what we hear every day of the week from every stereotypical gun owner.”
For 10 days earlier this year Ommanney criss-crossed the United States, traveling from Florida to Virginia to Colorado, down to Arizona, across Texas and back to Florida. What emerges from the photographs that Ommanney captured along the way is a slice of America not often seen by people in many of the more liberal parts of the country.
“It was important for me, in light of what has been going on in America with all of the mass shootings and ongoing gun debate, as a foreigner, to understand their love and why this was so important to them and why guns are so important to so many people in this country,” Ommanney said.
Ommanney captures his subjects in everyday scenes–but with deadly weapons. They are portraits of contradiction.
There’s the award-winning, progressive journalist photographed in Colorado, cradling a handgun with an extended wooden stock like a newborn child. In another, a doting father in Miami hoists his baby into the air with a holstered pistol bulging from his hip as some might wear a mobile phone. There’s one of a middle-aged Virgina woman sitting in bed with her legs crossed and a pump-action shotgun propped up in her hand, where in any other context a Bible might seem more predictable.
There are the armed children and gun-toting families: two little girls in Arizona, one with a handgun tethered to her waist and the other holding a military-style assault rifle, sitting on their living room couch. And a family— mother, father, sister, brother— all armed with rifles, standing among a patch of bush and flowering cacti near their Georgia home.
Ommanney said it was important to photograph people and their guns where they felt most comfortable, often in their own homes.
“This is where these guns live, where the people live,” he said. “This is where 99.95% of the time these guns are, not in the woods or at a target range.”
For Ommanney, who has worked in international war zones, there was no more startling photo shoot than his very first for the project.
The gun owner was a 16-year-old girl whom Ommanney described as a girl next door.
Ommanney photographed the blonde teen holding a pistol in front of whimsical backdrop of flowered wallpaper from the 1980s. The photo is reminiscent of a high school yearbook picture, except with the firearm as an awkward, dangerous prop.
“I just couldn’t compute this innocent-looking girl who looks very similar to many daughters of good friends I know,” Ommanney said. “How could she possibly use a weapon? She was so young and so not what you would imagine to be a gun owner. I watched her go to school with her backpack in the way millions of daughters do every day.”
American citizens own an estimated 300 million firearms. Each year an additional 4.5 million guns are sold in this country. And as the nation continues to wrestle with a broad debate over who should own them and the ease with which they can be purchased, huge swaths of the country embrace a culture where guns and Second Amendment rights are paramount.
Ommanney’s photo essay is part of a wider focus by MSNBC on guns and gun culture. On Friday, Nov. 22 at 9 p.m. ET, MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton examines the epidemic of gun violence in American cities with “50 Years of Guns.”