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

Rex Larsen's picture

For me, many of the comments, and my reaction to the pictures, is about symbolism. Some see the photos and think about freedom, fun or safety. Others are reminded of death and suffering. The pictures make me feel uncomfortable and sad, in a similar way to my reaction to cigarettes as a popular prop in portraits. Some pictures are of course created to provoke and make the viewer uncomfortable. Sorry, but I don't agree with the comment comparing them to automobile photos.

Shannon Duffy's picture

I didn't even finish reading the title of this post from the front page, yet instantly I knew, "there's gonna be arguing in the comments due to the guns"

Dan Savinelli's picture

The funny part is, American gun owners, dont run around holding the guns the way Patrick posed them in the photos. I say this for all the photographers in this thread who mistook this for accurate photo journalism and never pose their subjects. Looks to me like this may have been a photoshoot for fun, and not the NYTimes.

Patrick Hall's picture

I simply told people to hold their guns in a way that presents the guns vs standing in a combat stance. Some people still did the combat stance but most of the people held the guns however they wanted. The girl with the 50 caliber held her gun the only way she could have. For the families, the only major thing I told them was to move a gun so it didn't block their faces.

I'm not exactly sure what sort of "natural" holding position you think I told them to avoid.

Dan Savinelli's picture

Nope, Im on board with what you did. I must of worded it wrong. I was addressing people in the thread who think this is how Americans walk down the street. Whether you posed them, or they posed themselves, they were having fun with it. I think you did a great job with the shoot.

You can tell from my profile pic how I feel about guns. But even if you hunt to feed your family, I don't like the idea of guns for Christmas.

By the way, that "anti-tank" gun looks more like an ugly bench rifle. And if anyone cares, I use my .460 XVR (world's most powerful production handgun) for punching tidy holes in paper.

Rex Larsen's picture

Since we're talking about guns received as Christmas presents, some may be interested to know that in 2015 aprox one American per week was killed by a toddler with a gun. Over a dozen toddlers accidentally shot themselves to death this year. Brings to mind a much different possible photo project.

Government statistics indicate that ~ 5 children per day die as a result of neglect. 76% percent of those deaths are from woeful care from their parent(s). Our politicians in this country are putting to the forefront these Gun Control statistics above much larger issues. 1500+ children dying per year... from NEGLECT.... I don't think guns are as big an issue do you? I point this out not to diminish the loss of children killed by gun fire (irresponsible storage of a weapon) but to show that Gun Control initiatives are not at all born out of deep concern for public safety. More people die per year from reckless driving, unintentional household poisoning, alcohol related incidents, etc. There are MANY more things that kill people each year than guns and yet there is such a push to take away this freedom to possess such a tool. I can't digest well what they're feeding the masses.

jun wei lim's picture

I love the set up with the fog and the backdrop, the lighting set up is just amazing. Also the concept is really interesting!

John Ruth's picture

When I saw the subject matter I knew it would be very polarizing. I shot my first gun and photograph over 56 years ago. A lot of things have changed but was has changed the most is the polarization of opinions of guns. Statisticly the number of gun deaths per 100,000 has been steadily going down for the past 20 years. At the same time the amount of guns has steadily increased to a point there is roughly one gun for every person in America. Now the number of gun deaths in certain cities and neighborhoods have skyrocketed but it is not the guns, it's is the morals of those involved.
Patrick I loved the idea, it sure got some attention. Yes I went to the range the day after Christmas and yes it was packed. A gun is just a tool, it is how you use it that counts!

Well said Mr. Ruth.

Richard Bell's picture

Disappointing photo series. Not because of the image quality but the subject. American gun violence is atrocious and this glorifies it more....less guns is best not celebrating more.

Patrick Hall's picture

I agree that gun violence is atrocious as you said but I do not necessarily think these images glorify or celebrate the gun owners. I've had many people tell me personally how sad and depressing these images are (not glorifying at all) and others tell me the complete opposite about how empowering and heroic the images look. I think ultimately it comes down to the viewer's own opinion on the topic and people will read into it as they will.

Richard Bell's picture

Sorry glorifying is the wrong word.

Chuck Eggen's picture

Thanks Richard for your informed opinion? Yet no one is trying to prohibit alcohol. How many die each year from drinking related incidents. Yet photographers will commercialize beer, wine, liquor in photos for subject and/or money. How about banning cellphones all together. Placing a device in a car that kills service until the vehicle is turned off. Texting is one of the fastest growing causes of accidents in the US. When you add those two alone you'll find they contribute to more deaths than guns by 100 fold. So, where's your outrage on these killers. I know why no one cares. It's not as politically charged. You don't get any bang for the buck there. Hypocrites of the PC age. No research. Relying on Facebook memes to guide them in their lives.

Rex Larsen's picture

I haven't heard any news stories of mass killings and injuries in schools and concert halls from alcohol or cell phones. Some people don't seem to be very troubled by those tragedies.

Dan Savinelli's picture

I will bet all my camera gear that more teenagers have died in drunk driving accidents or in a car with a drunk driver, or hit by one than all of the innocent people who have died by the random shootings you mentioned. May have to agree with Chuck on this.

Rex Larsen's picture

No need to bet, it's not a contest. Concerned people are dedicated to reducing both causes of tragedy and violence.

Richard Bell's picture

Sorry but your wrong...No guns. No intentional gun deaths. I live in australia, the only time (very rare time) you hear of gun deaths is a farmer on a hunting trip or the occasional holdup / police shooting. These are allways with long arms and we have no mass shootings. Can't deny that no guns will prevent a LARGE number of avoidable deaths.

Its a very informed opinion from a person living in a country with next to no gun violence."

The argument that there are more deaths caused by something else is a moronic statement as there will always be something that is a bigger killer.

David Vaughn's picture

My only issue is that these seem almost...satirical? Why the American flag? These photos don't really contribute to gun violence (owning a gun doesn't mean you're just hoping for a reason to use it), but it does seem to perpetuate the idea that the U.S. fetishizes guns beyond their very simple utility.

Nicely done concept shoot that no doubt would be controversial. I'd echo wishing the light stands weren't visible but understand how impossible it would be with the wider shots.

Good to hear you saw a reality different from what the media has brainwashed people into thinking is the "normal" gunowner. Wish some of the other posters saw this with more of an open mind...

I can't lie, I came to this page and went directly to the comments.

Great project, very cool to see the great stuff people got for Christmas. Makes me jealous! I need to get my wife better ideas for Christmas next year instead of socks.

I can't wait for my kids to be old enough to join me on the range. Going to be a great time with them!

Also, I think its more than a little funny that people assume most in these photos are LEO or military. Like it makes then feel better that somehow they are more worthy of exercising their natural, civil, and constitutionally protected rights as an american citizen.

Justin Myers's picture

My favorite photos are the kids holding the guns.

@Patrick Hall - you might have put too much emphasis on "shooting" while trying to out-do Lee's "Babes in Bikinis with an iPhone Shooting"... if simply going viral was your target. Twitchy Trigger Twitter Fingers.

Patrick Hall's picture

The original iphone fashion shoot was definitely something we thought about long and hard in terms of making a viral idea. This has the potential to go viral but honestly the idea was just so simple and easy to execute that I just went out and did it.

Rex Larsen's picture

How about a combined follow up feature ? Half-naked gun lovers tazer each other with stun guns ?

I think you're onto something here

when people are talking about gun control laws, you did a portrait session with guns. that's a great idea. hopefully this will go viral. good luck. :D

Patrick Hall's picture

Thanks Andy. The idea isn't for something to go viral but rather to photograph something that has real meaning in today's society. Obviously I love taking portraits and photos of quirky and fun things....that's mostly what I do. But I think it's important to photograph stuff that makes people think and causes an open dialog. The main reason I photographed this series was because it was a very interesting idea that popped up and I said that I had to do it because of the idea itself. The other very small secondary reason I did this series was because I was tired of seeing so many photos of sexy girls, shot at 85mm 1.4 that have been retouched and color toned to hell. Just trying to break the mold of what is popular right now while also pushing my own creativity as I grow as a photographer myself.