Photographs of Americans and Their Christmas Guns

For the majority of people, the day after Christmas is usually filled with farewells to extended family members, house cleaning, writing thank you cards, and crashing on the couch to watch the final games of the football season. But for many Americans, the day after Christmas offers a unique opportunity: a chance to head out to the firing range and test the new guns and accessories they received from loved ones. This year, I decided to take my camera out to a local rifle range and document the people and guns who showed up the day after Christmas.

The concept for this shoot manifested itself a few weeks ago while I was celebrating a friend's birthday party. A few acquaintances started talking about guns and a friend of mine said, "Well, you definitely don't want to go out to the firing range the day after Christmas because it is filled with tons of rednecks shooting guns they gave each other." I had a little laugh when she told us her personal experience from the year before, and it made me start to think that maybe there was a really unique opportunity to document one of America's favorite pastimes.

Behind the scenes of the simple lighting setup.

In the south we casually throw the word "reckneck" around, and with the diversity surrounding Charleston, S.C. I knew that there would be all sorts of people showing up at the range. What I wasn't sure about was just how many people would make shooting guns a priority immediately following the holiday. This curiosity set up what would become one of the most interesting photoshoots of my career.

The Concept

Great photography is so common these days that in order to make something stand out you really need to conceptualize your own vision before committing to a shoot. For these portraits, I wanted to capture people exactly as they showed up to the range. I also knew that in order to make a compelling photograph, I couldn't just take a photo against some trees or in the parking lot. My initial thought was to just set up a white roll of paper out in the field but that seemed a little boring. As I was exploring different background options, a friend of mine suggested I use an American flag he had in his garage. When I saw the huge flag in the studio I knew it would not only make for a great backdrop but it would also gain a lot of attention at the range.

Since Halloween, I have been trying to figure out a simple way to bring portable smoke to a few of my shoots. Recently we bought this cheap fog machine on clearance and we figured out how to run it off a deep cell marine battery with a cheap 400 watt power converter we got off Amazon. The typical solution for running a smoke machine on location is to use a generator but sometimes you need to use smoke in situations where a loud generator isn't possible. Since I was eager to test out my battery setup on a full day shoot, I decided to bring it along to the firing range. The smoke helped recreate the atmosphere you find at a rifle range when a dozen or so guns are going off in rapid succession. Plus it just looked cool.

The test shoot in the studio allowed me to work on the concept.

The week before Christmas, I invited a few friends over to the studio so I could design the overall lighting and aesthetic of the portraits. The lighting setup was pretty straightforward, with a single Profoto beauty dish as the key light, positioned as close to the subject as possible without being in the frame. I used a second Profoto B1 head firing back through the flag to give some backlighting to my subject. Since the shoot was happening outside, where the ambient light was bright, I went ahead and conducted the test shoots with the Profoto B1s at near full power. We added a little smoke from behind and fired away. The resulting images were pretty awesome, as you can see above. One little challenge I had to overcome was the backlight on the flag lighting the blue field with stars unevenly. I decided to block the light passing through the stars by gaffing up the entire backside of the flag so only the red and white stripes would glow. 

The Execution

Once the test shots were completed and I knew the photos were to my liking, it was time to prepare for the actual day of shooting. Since I had been warned of how hectic the range would be, I got up early and drove out to the range in time to pick my spot. It was important to be close to the action, but far enough away that it I could still communicate with everyone as dozens of guns fired in the distance. My friend, Nick Milak, helped me set up the Avenger Stands, get the flag up, position all the lights, and test out the smoke machine. Everything went exactly as planned in the studio, except I did not anticipate the wind blowing the smoke off to the side of the frame. The simple solution to this problem was to wave the smoke machine in both directions to fill as much of the frame with fog as possible. It didn't always work perfectly, but it was also easy to blend a few exposures in post if I needed extra fog in the final image.

As I said in the video, I wasn't exactly sure who would show up or how people would react to this portrait session. During my five-hour stay at the range, I probably saw over 150 people come and go, with only about 20 percent of them agreeing to take part in the photoshoot. Those that did take part were extremely enthusiastic. It was important to me that the people in these photos weren't overly posed or acting like they were in combat, although a few people did gravitate towards that direction. Most everyone cooperated with me and simply displayed their rifles and handguns in a respectable manner. The majority of people out at the range that day had a few guns, and some had even received ammunition for Christmas, so I made sure to include that in the portraits. The craziest gun from the whole day was "Christine," who had the custom-made, pink 50-Caliber anti-tank rifle. It was also bedazzled in jewels.

Overall, this portrait session was pretty easy because I had prepared well in advance. Everyone who had their photo taken was super excited about the images, and each portrait had its own character with the smoke and the variety of weaponry displayed. Obviously, the politics concerning gun ownership and how the U.S. Second Amendment fits into today's society is a highly debated topic. My goal with these portraits wasn't to take any particular side in that argument, but instead, I just wanted to capture the diverse group of gun owners from every walk of life, as they enjoyed their hobby following Christmas. I think what makes any photo series interesting is seeing how individual people with different cultures, beliefs, and ideologies interpret and critique a collection of photographs. For me, these are some of the most interesting photographs I have ever taken, and this is a series I could see myself revisiting down the road.

The Photographs

Enough talk about preparation, technical photography talk, and the entire experience. Below are a few of my favorite images from the entire day. I have to be honest and say I'm not an expert in gun nomenclature, so if you know the names of any of the guns included in this series, feel free to discuss them in the comments below.  

 

A bunch of news outlets have featured this photo series since I published it.  Fox New's Fox and Friends recently featured me on their show to talk about how the photo series came about and my thoughts on the series as a whole.  

 

 

 

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135 Comments

Armmen...lol

Sean Gibson's picture

What do you expect Alex... when logic fails, people always turn to religion. Dan is right about one thing, guns are just a tool sometimes used by bad people..... Religion is the weapon (all of them).

Patrick Hall's picture

I always find it funny when people say that Religion is the culprit for all the wars and violence in the world. Almost all of the biggest atrocities in the human history weren't actually under the guise of religion but instead power, money, race, lineage, etc. In other words, if you were to remove all religion from humanity, we would still find reasons to invade, suppress, kill, ethnic cleanse, rape, enslave, and destroy other human beings who do not fit our particular prejudices. Religion has definitely been a reason historically for all of the above but it's just one of many reasons people do horrible things. WWI and II were not religious wars for example, and the holocaust was not a consequence so much in religion as much as it was nationalist and ethnic supremacy.

Sean Gibson's picture

I knew I should have not joined the conversation, just because I feel it has no place on this site, and I really like it and the both of you (Patrick & Lee). But to respond one last time.... Religion is the result of people wanting power. It's where all religion was born from (not some deity). Just read your bible if you question why I said all religion is the weapon — there are more horrific, "encouraged" acts of violence and murder than in all the horror movies I've ever watched combined. To quote one of my favorite writers; "If God actually exists, he should be brought up on crimes against humanity". I'll leave this topic now, but thanks for being so involved in the site Patrick, not something you see often these days.

On an FStoppers related question since I have the audience; How is there an "Asian Photographers" group on the site? Seems not so PI don't you think? I would understand if it was a Tokyo or Japan group, but not Asian... do they have some unique perspective on photography that the rest of us do not? I really don't care personally, but just found it funny enough to question with how PI everyone is these days. I think I'll start the 1/4 Irish, 1/4 English, 1/4 Scottish, 1/4 Greman Americans Group next week. ha!

The groups are user made

Leigh Smith's picture

More people people have died by the cross than any weapon.

Leigh Smith's picture

Its also pretty ironic, the actual cross "not the modern symbology", is an actual physical instrument of torture and death.

Patrick Hall's picture

I'll ask this because I honestly do not know the answer, but have that many people died by the cross? Does that mean the Christian faith or by actually being killed on a cross?

I would have to believe the sword, gun, bomb, or gas chamber have killed more people than anything else when you do the math. I'd imagine the number of deaths from death on a cross since 1800 has been negligible compared to other forms of death. Maybe the crucifixion death toll numbers are massive from the start of mankind until the invention of modern weaponry though....I really don't know

Dan Ostergren's picture

Perhaps by saying "the cross", he's implying that religion has caused more death than guns or weapons.

Dan Savinelli's picture

.

Leigh Smith's picture

When i said cross "modern symbology", meaning the christian faith. And any other religion for that matter... The crusades, holocaust, religious wars, radical terrorism, KKK, etc etc. All throughout history. So many people have died in the name of "god".

I think a further study of history would benefit you. Considering more people that were killed in war during the 20th century than all the prior centuries combined, we can show that your premise is erroneous. Looking at WWI, WWII, Russian Revolution, China's Xinhai, 2nd Revolution, and Civil War, throw in the Civil Wars in Rwanda, Cambodia... We are pushing 100 million people, without a religious component to their death.

While not insignificant, the 10's of thousands killed in the Crusades just doesn't compare.

Jason Vinson's picture

perfect

sascha hölterhoff's picture

what's that thing with weapons over there?

the world is suffering from thousands of brainwashed morons - violence, brutality and wars still making history. the weapon industry is earning billions of dollars with families suffering from the loss of loved ones, you´ve got school shootings and policemen running amok, gangs killing each other with "these wonderful pieces of mechanic"...

and those ppl are gifting weaponry on the evening of peace? christmas? holiday of love?
and even if this is not enough sickness - even teens and little children? how perverted is that?

and sorry dude, it´s a shame to support and cloak it as photography or even "cool" or "arty"...

full stop.

my 2 cents.

Dan Savinelli's picture

That is a heartfelt opinion and meaningful opinion. I would agree may be it would me nice if they were never invented. saying that, unfortunatley they were. a lot of times they have been used for evil, and to stop the evil, the good people in the world have had to use them as well. I wish the news would report when civilians have stopped crime or carnage when no police are around, but they only show the bad things that happen. But I guess thats still violence as well. Imagine the landscape of Europe if Americans, Canadians, British and other Allied forces did not use them against that insane dictator 60 years ago? unfortunatley, they are here to stay and trying to remove them from law enforcement or other good people would only increase evil in the world as sad as that sounds. But like anything, even the internet, tho it serves exceedingly good purposes, there is a whole world of evil that comes from it. personally another thing I would have been fine without. I would have been fine listing my photography services in the blackbook or another professional phothgraphers resource back in the day instead of a website. Funny thing is, if there were no firearms, we would be having the same debate about swords and kitchen knives.

sascha hölterhoff's picture

thanks for your statement, dan...

i think there is a difference between official forces being armed and using their equipment and the fact that normal citizens have the ability to buy them 24/7...

don´t get me wrong - this is not a european guy blaming the states thing - i like the country, made great experiences and have met interesting people over there.
and i am also convinced that if the US would not life their pride and loyality the way they do this country would not be what it is these days (saying that without emphasis)....

but i think weapons - and i know we unfortunately cannot wipe them away from the planet, so we cannot wipe all evil - do not belong in the hands of normal people, children etc...

and i have to disagree about the kitchen knifes, by the way...
:)

Dan Savinelli's picture

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Réjean Brandt's picture

Maybe there wouldn't be the feeling of need to protect ones family with guns if guns weren't so easily available? As a Canadian, I don't know very many people that own guns, except for hunters (which then most are American that come up to Canada to hunt). I don't feel the need to own a gun to protect my family. It's a fairly peaceful country without guns... not to say that we don't have any gun violence here sometimes.
But I like to see other people's opinions, and I'm not bashing gun owners at all. Just another opinion.

May I add, kindly, that the freedom our country enjoys was largely fought for by civilians armed with guns. The gun was and always will be a tool, just like a camera or computer. It is completely at the mercy of the hands that wield it to decide its use and the effect they may have with it on society. I have a small collection of guns which have sat unused for years and I'm not amazed that not one of them has gone out and committed a crime. Our current culture vilifies the object that is used to do harm rather than take ownership of the consequences of the moral downward slide we've seen strongly progress over the past century. The heart of the people is the problem; it always has been. It is my opinion that if we wish to see a vast change sweep across the land (including reduction in crime) that we must bring back the importance of moral living that values honor and good citizenship. Teach and inspire our children to live life not just for themselves and vanity but to serve others in a spirit of genuine care. Serving others is the highest, most dignified form of human behavior. No wonder we see so many young ones these days struggling to find joy and purpose in life when they've spent the first 12-20 years of it focused on only themselves - helped along by the entertainment and marketing agendas that are saturating their minds with counterproductive behavior. WE, as a society, are teaching them a false hope for joy that has never benefitted anyone in the long run. Is it any surprise that depression, crime, and violence now saturate our culture? Anyway, sorry to get so long winded there. My 2 cents.

"May I add, kindly, that the freedom our country enjoys was largely fought for by civilians armed with guns."

Freedom against the locals that didn't appreciate your invasion?

Freedom against rulers from abroad for "unlawful taxation"?

Freedom to practice your "uncivilized" form of religious extremism?

Freedom to burn alive those that didn't agree with your beliefs?

May I kindly ask when 'merica will own up collectively to being nothing more than descendants of what they label as "terrorists" these days?

Doc, balling up events in American history which represent so few of our people (hateful minority extremists, and post-revolution war mongers) and then posing them as a series of questions to rebuke only 11% of what was written sounds rather vacant. In line with that, please don't blindly associate me or, for that matter, any other American as being party -in action or spirit - to those actions which harmed others in the name of hate. Perhaps you'd like to share with us the country of your origin so that we, too, may pick and choose some ugly events in its history and apply them to your character. That wouldn't be fair, would it? I'll assume you were just writing out of frustration and lost track of the point you were trying to make.

You were recalling the past, to which I replied with questions from that very past you consider a success. Be thankful and have pride you were on the winning side. But please stop with the arrogance that the fight was any better than those fighting for their own freedoms today.

"Balling up questions" was the short form that hopefully allowed you to think for yourself in relation to the sentance I quoted.

Since you asked: I'm a white American of 53 raised in MN; went to school, lived and worked in LA during the '80s; the last 26 years I've been living and working mostly throughout Europe, with short periods in India and Sri Lanka.

So be my guest: point out the failures amid the admitted successes of my country. I'm aware of where I came from and how it affected other cultures for good and bad, almost every single day.

Maybe that is what's needed more: Americans stepping outside of their cacoons to see how they're viewed by the "every day man on the street" from around the world.

Here's just a couple of the "nicer views":

How The Dutch View Americans - https://youtu.be/e0nc2TDYZcw

How the Germans View Americans - https://youtu.be/G1-XHWLgtlA

*** I'm only frustrated that so many photographers can be so willfully blind.

Doc, I apologize for assuming you were not an American. I must have read poorly into your comments.
I have travelled to every continent accept Antarctica, and have lived in Europe, wandered many countries in Asia, the Middle East, South America, Central America and have been through all 50 of our States. On top of that, I travel the globe for my living. I am not sheltered nor am I new. I am all too well aware of what other countries think of the US. I have been told many times that my interaction with people had positively changed their view of our country - if not a lot, at least a little. I recognize that any American traveling overseas is an ambassador, whether they accept that or not. I also see where many people not of our country have gross misconceptions of who we are and what a few of us stand for. They assume that we're all war mongering, power hungry, trouble-makers who nothing more than to be rich and immoral at any cost. That may speak of some but it still doesn't speak to the majority. Most of us, no matter which country we're from, want peace, food in our bellies, a roof over our head, and opportunity to be what we make of ourselves. While the US is not perfect, it is still the most free country I've ever visited and am proud to call it home and would fight to keep it so.

That being said, I made one opening sentence, "May I add, kindly, that the freedom our country enjoys was largely fought for by civilians armed with guns." which simply set the tone for the other 88% percent of what I wrote. The point of my comment was to point out that guns are not the problem, it's the nut who wields it. It is my opinion that we have gross societal issues at play which contribute to the increase in seemingly random acts of violence. History is full of violence but it seems that these days, it's not just coming from crazy dictators and power-hungry governments. It's the John Doe across the street. That leads me to an attempt at answering the Why? I would be genuinely interested in your view on that?

First off, no apologies necessary. I’d also like to note that it’s nice to discuss specifically with someone as well travelled as you are. AFAIC your opinion then carries even more weight and my surprise at your following quote.

“The point of my comment was to point out that guns are not the problem, it's the nut who wields it.”

I disagree. Guns are the problem the world over, not just in America. That a gun can do more damage in less time than say a knife or a baseball bat is fact. Making a gun easily to obtain legally or otherwise, is simply asking for trouble in a large population of psychological differentiation, especially when guns outnumber them.

“It is my opinion that we have gross societal issues at play which contribute to the increase in seemingly random acts of violence.”

The glorification of gun violence in entertainment is the “gross (pun intended) societal problem” that is unique to America and certainly not random. It is pervasive(!). Add to that the wide-spread media propaganda from both sides of the political spectrum, and you’ve created an atmosphere of fear, loathing and hate for your neighbour and imaginary enemies. Some of the intellectually challenged aren’t able to handle psychologically, nor decipher the brainwashing and lash out in frustration. It’s really not much more than that.

Yes… they are “nut jobs” with guns. Then again, IMHO… A society that accepts and allows a child to be given a toy gun or a game that at it’s core is killing things to “play with”, yet will call the halls of justice down upon anyone that dares bare a female breast to that child… is sadly a perpetual circle and large collective of “nut jobs”.

That a certain American political event that will engross the world this year is currently being led by 2 extremists and their ability to foment fear and hate among the American public, I don’t expect things to get much better any time soon whether 2 world-travellers discuss the finer points of “why” or not. And regardless of who wins, I doubt very much that it will alleviate any of the concerns and questions from the people *I* talk to every day. More than likely I think we’ll all be aghast and I’ll be just as tongue-tied to answer the Big Question on everyone’s lips as I am right now:

“WTF is happening in America?”

Well said Doc. I see your point about the effectiveness of a gun vs. more "traditional" means; worth further consideration on my part. I'd say it takes less insanity to pull a trigger than it does to stab someone to death and perhaps that is what makes gun crime more likely to occur than an old-school stabbing, especially with so much practice at it available to them in games.

"A society that accepts and allows a child to be given a toy gun or a game that at it’s core is killing things to “play with”, yet will call the halls of justice down upon anyone that dares bare a female breast to that child… "
That is so true. My wife and I have 9 kids (same marriage, all ours, no we're not mormon, catholic, muslim, crazy, tired, or on welfare, and we know what causes it) and all of them have been breastfed. Even in the privacy of a limousine-tinted vehicle, my wife has been subjected to hateful comments for nursing - with a blanket over the baby. All she can do is smile back and then burst into tears when they walk away. Not to mention the freedom people express in their ugly comments to her AND the kids for us being a large family. Indeed... Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? As hopeful as I try to remain for some miraculous recovery of our country, I certainly have no faith that the next pawn-in-office will be the answer to any of this.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

It's all about balance. Criminals have weapons, government and police have weapons, and people should have weapons as well. Gun owner needs to practice to be able to use it properly. Most people that practice shooting will find it challenging and fun as they try to get better score at the range.
Those who think that guns don't belong to law abiding citizens, didn't put much thought into that. They probably didn't study much history or don't even realize what is happening right now.

Jeff Lower's picture

I love the shots where you can't see the stands. Love the smoke, the flag, and the whole idea, but I am sad to see a few folks with their fingers on the triggers.

Patrick Hall's picture

Thanks Jeff. I definitely considered shooting everyone completely surrounded by the flag but that seemed too simple to me and I actually preferred the look of everyone standing outside with the "production" elements in the frame. I did try to photograph most everyone in a way that I could crop in tight if I wanted (the 36mp files allow you to have both options at a resolution high enough to print massive images).

Réjean Brandt's picture

Cool photos and concept, I just don't understand America's obsession with guns lol.