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

Dan Savinelli's picture

We are a nutty bunch. Its like football, its an American past time. Im still trying to understand why europeans like soccer and try to call it football. lol. Beautiful photos btw.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

hahaha. It is called football because players use their feet to kick the ball. Why american football is called football? There is no use of feet nor there is a ball ;)

Dan Savinelli's picture

You got me Roman :)

Always remember gun safety 1. The Gun is always loaded and 2. Finger off the trigger. The picture of the guy with the drum magazine has his finger on the trigger. Thats a no no. Cool project though :)

Barry Chapman's picture

Maybe he didn't read the owner's manual yet...

Anthony Tripoli's picture

In the Marines we are taught "TREAT NEVER KEEP KEEP"
Which is short for
TREAT every weapon as if it were loaded
NEVER point a weapon at anything you don't intend to shoot
KEEP your finger straight and off the trigger till ready to fire
KEEP your weapon on safe until you intend to fire

Some of these subjects could use a crash course in gun safety.

It's cringe worthy. I don't own a gun and I know that you never put your finger on the trigger unless your want to shoot.

That family man with the hand gun next to his daugther...

Kimberly Weber's picture

I noticed that as well in at least one picture. The one that stands out the most is the two young men (possibly 18 years old?) holding their guns and one of them had the gun pointed out. To me this is a big safety issue. I used to shoot guns occasionally just to stay in practice but I never had a mag in unless I was about to pull that trigger.

Patrick Hall's picture

I know people won't like me saying this and I understand the concern for safety, BUT we did do a thorough gun check to make sure every single gun was unloaded, no bullets were chambered, and every clip was completely empty. Safeties were also explicitly turned on too before anyone got in front of my camera.

That being said, yes it looks like a few people did not practice the straight finger rule and it was something I did not catch while shooting. As for the guns being pointed towards the camera, the angle was very very obtuse and there was no one in front of those guns in anyways.

To be clear, I actually didn't want people holding their guns in a glorified military or combat stance for this project. I wanted everyone to be more or less presenting their gun or holding it in a comfortable manner without actually looking like they were firing it. A few people did do both stances and only a few wound up with images that were better in the military stance because I only took about 8 frames per person.

Kimberly Weber's picture

And I can respect that completely. Plus its not your job to make sure people practice common sense. Something that I have learned over the many years that I've done photography is that some people tend to lose their common sense when they get in front of a camera and want to show off.

Rex Larsen's picture

Always good to encourage common sense when a gun is pointed at you.

The red checkered shirt guy has the best picture.

Seeing the stands (that are bright orange no less...) sort of take away from the pictures...

Kinda like seeing the strings in a movie.

Patrick Hall's picture

The stands were not orange but metal avenger stands. Not sure where the orange color is you refer to.

As for "seeing the strings," that was my intention. I wanted people to see the "photo set" to bring a sort of realness to the images and show exactly what it was like to be out in the woods while still not having a distracting forest background. I did wind up cropping a few images to mix into the series to add some diversity but I felt like a series full of cropped, full flag photos made everyone look too overly heroic and glamorized. It's a personal choice that the viewer can like or dislike but it was 100% intentional from my perspective.

Dan Savinelli's picture

Pretty ironic, not to compare them to or get to deep. Guns and Cameras (Media) have probably changed the world probably than anything else in History, good and bad. Imagery shapes the world we live in just like the other. Pretty amazing to me. Nice work Patrick! you put them both in the same story. :)

Patrick Hall's picture

Thanks Dan. I'm glad you enjoy the series. It has been interesting hearing and seeing so many different opinions about guns in America as well as the criticism I have received personally for taking these photos in the first place. In the end I tried to be as objective an unbiased as possible while capturing a very common element to American culture. Like it or not, this is a reality much like Joey L's amazing photos of terrorists in the middle east is a reality.

Dan Savinelli's picture

Well, im glad your standing strong. there really should not be controversy. Whether I believe in gun ownership or not, I thought they were great photos. Nor will I judge the people by the way they look in the photos, or for the way they held their guns. Im from the NYC region, but I do know that most people from down south are super nice, laid back, good hearted people. You took photos of what looks like to be some good people just having some fun. "whether they held a firearm perfectly or not". I find as I am getting older, I cannot care what people think or let their offences control my actions. People seem to get offended at everything these days one way or the other. It is important as photographers not to be moved by stuff like this, It will hinder our growth especially over controversial projects. Which is the way you handled this, and I think thats great. If this was a series of girls in bikinis sitting on tanks, everyone would have loved it, a bigger death devise.

Ian Ludwig's picture

place holder for further enjoyment

The year is 2030 and fully autonomous cars have been available for 10 years. Back in 2015 1.3 million humans were killed in car wrecks each year but today the number has began to drop due to self driving cars.

Manual driving has been banned in a few of the most liberal countries. Americans, especially the men, fight for their right to drive manually.

"I know it's dangerous but it's our heritage" says Billy johnson. "My great grandfather worked for ford and my grandfather used to race cars. The government doesn't have the right to tell me what I can and can't do."

The opposition suggests that not only are manual drivers a danger to themselves and their family but they are also making all roads more dangerous for everyone else in automatic cars. "How many children have to die before you will give up your death machine?" says Kate Moore.

Patrick Hall photographs American men standing next to manual cars and the debate continues.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Scary!!! But I think you are predicting the future. Patrick, don't forget this assignment ;)

Lee, I must say this is a creative argument. I wonder though how it relates to gun ownership. The current political initiative is speaking against our right to even own a gun.
Using your story for a moment to correct the skew: That would be like telling those manual car-driving men that they are not allowed to even own a car that is not automatic. Outlawing a manual car sitting in a garage with a car cover on it is more analogous to what is being pushed to change in the time we live - as it relates to guns. If we get to the point where we allow our government to determine what we can or cannot own based purely on potential for misuse, then we are headed for some darker times. Laws which limit who may not own a gun, as a result of one's personal history, are just and required. Laws, however, should not dictate to a law abiding citizen that he/she may not own them. When was the last time you were out and about and saw a law abiding citizen carelessly wielding a weapon? I venture to answer that for you and say, never. Even if guns were banned, do you honestly believe that a person with criminal intent would allow imposition of a law to sway them from their appetite for violence? They'll find another way to maximize loss of life because they're human and humans are creative that way. Some use their creative power to do good and some to do bad. Peace.

I don't think the USA will ever ban the ownership of all guns. What about antiques? What about guns that have been modified so that they don't fire?

I find myself right in the middle of this heated argument. I don't own a real gun but I do occasionally go out and shoot for fun. I also own air rifles which I shoot for fun all the time.

I understand that having more guns is more dangerous (look up gun deaths in Japan). But at the same time I hate the Government telling me what I can and can't do and own. If guns are banned in the USA it wouldn't really affect me, but what will they ban next? I could certainly kill someone with my air rifle if I wanted to so will they come and take that too? What about about explosives? What about gasoline? What about fireworks? What about rat poison?

Our freedom will be taken away one step at a time. Manual cars will eventually get there and I really enjoy driving! It will be sad if I am forced to give that up one day but I do understand that we have to give things up for the greater good.

Rex Larsen's picture

There are comments here and elsewhere about efforts to ban gun ownership in the United States. What we mostly see however are strong efforts to restrict some very high power automatic weapons and ammunition, and large capacity bullet clips as well. There are also calls for background checks and modification to how guns are bought and sold. Looking at statistics from 2015 people were more at risk from being shot and killed by a toddler, sitting in the classroom, domestic violence, or accidents than from a terrorist attack. And there are no real signs our elected government officials or the President of the United States is preparing to round up everybody's guns. Many concerned citizens, community leaders, and politicians look at the very alarming and heartbreaking statistics of gun violence and death and are compelled to make sensible changes without any call for an outright ban on gun ownership.

Patrick Hall's picture

I'm the first one to say that the fear the media is spreading about the dangers of terrorism is absolutely non sense the same way that the dangers of bird flu, SARS, Ebola, and Mexican cartel murder is non sense. On one hand it's great for ratings and entertainment/obsession but on the other hand you are almost 100% more likely to be killed by a car than all these things combined.

That being said, I also see the slippery slope you face when you want to ban only the "high powered automatic weapons and ammunition." For one, a fully automatic weapon hasn't been used in a mass shooting in America....maybe ever. Those are illegal to own without some major background checks and expensive tax stamps.

The tricky part comes in with defining these weapons you are trying to reference. Almost all guns are semi automatic weapons with many of the smaller hand guns actually having clips that carry more bullets than the bigger "assault rifles." Let's say you banned clips that hold more than 10 rounds. I still do not think mass shootings would end; people would just load more clips and take a few extra seconds to reload.

I don't have the stats in front of me, but some of the most horrendous mass shootings in America were actually carried out with small hand guns (the less scary ones). I want to say this was the case with Sandy Hook although an AR15 was found unused in the trunk. There are some pretty unbiased, hard fact reports you can find that show which guns were involved in which mass shootings.

When I weigh all the options and look for a real solution to this problem in America, I wind up coming to the conclusion that 1) we either tackle the real problem with gun violence in America (poverty mixed with race issues mixed with overall violence desensitization mixed with media glorification of murders) and leave all the current laws as is with high capacity magazines and semi automatic guns legal OR 2) ban all guns completely and spend the billions of dollars we would need to spend rebuying back all the guns from the population the same way Australia did.

While in my mind those seem like the two best ideal options, they also do not seem practical at all and I cannot see America solving this problem anytime soon. If you look at how Congress and the rest of the US government approaches this issue, I don't think they are willing to tackle it either. The current democratic party in america is as Anti Gun as ever and yet Obama won't actually do anything but talk big on gun reform, and on the other hand the Conservative party and NRA are not going to allow any reform to happen either. I can't imagine a solution being formed anytime soon and at this point I don't think the actually problem is the guns but rather the issues I outlined in solution #1 above which is going to take a LOOOOONG time to resolve if it can ever be resolved.

I appreciate your thoughtful reply and I'm glad to see that you do truly understand our situation. I couldn't agree more with what you said. The problem that remains is who do we allow define for us what is the greater good? Politicians who run this country in an ever downward-spiraling pit of corruption and immorality? Can't say I trust any reason they may present as cause to reduce our personal freedom. I've already given them 10 years of my life to go fight wars which served purposes that never saw print in the newspaper. Strategic lies and bad intentions, packaged up in such ways to seem consumable by the largely unaware and distracted populace. And the people ate it up like it was candy, waving flags and talking about patriotism and national pride. I am not an untrusting person but I find experience has taught me well enough to know that a government wishing to subjugate people to the point of being dependent on them has no less an intention to eventually rule them, free from the "chains" of our failing system of checks and balances. That, I cannot trust. I never signed up for that and I doubt you would either.

Ian Ludwig's picture

"They took our cars!"

Jest aside, creepy perspective.

mark payne's picture

oh lee you really going to stand up for this to its a dumb idea hurtfull and disrespectful to all your fans that may have lost some one to a gun miss hap or on purpus cars where not made to kill people they where mad to help people wonder how many times a gun has saved some one thats been hit by a car compaired to how many lifes get saved in from gun shots by abulances and other responce vechals that can get them to a hospital i thought this was an amazing site with some of if not the best photographs in the world so let down not just by one person on here but now by you to and going on the rest of the responce on here and you tube you guys have messed up guns should not be promted in any way and i thought you was better then that after hearing what you was saying about what happend in france not to long ago so thoughtless to your fans and others that have lost some one to such a stupid invension and making jokes about how many children have to die really in cars even if it is some thing that some one else said i lost my daughter she was run over but you know what the man that did it still to this day has nightmares and cant forgive him self wonder if thats how the people fell after they shoot up a whole school

Pat Black's picture

awesome work Pat!

I'll bite. This is just awful in every way... A family posing behind an American flag with children holding assault rifles. What is wrong these people?

As an Australian I just cannot comprehend the mentality.

Because 'Merica and freedom or some crap.

...and Australia still has the Queen on their currency. "Don't tread on me" was the motto of my forefathers who would not let a controlling government assert its power over them. To Americans, the gun is still held as an icon for what we stand (once stood): a nation with a government of the people, by the people and for the people. This wasn't given to us, rather we took it. I can't speak for how well we've let that hold true in modern times but that mindset still exists strongly in many parts of our country. If the government takes our guns, they're disarming us of the very tool we used to win them that fancy office in Washington D.C. It makes people a might nervous around here. Hope that helps clarify our cultural difference of opinion on the topic. Cheers.

Ben Perrin's picture

I agree Grant. Seeing how well gun control has worked here for the past 20 years I really can't fathom the American position on gun control. People are dying but Americans just want to maintain their "rights". Absolutely astonishing that people can justify murder so easily. You can have your rights America, I'll have fewer gun related deaths any day.