May 4, 2007

Your Turn: The Columbine Reflex


Perhaps the most dangerous intellectual act one can do with a portrait is to assume.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, this image — from a promotional site for photographer Kyle Cassidy’s upcoming book, ARMED AMERICA: Portraits of Gun Owners in their Homes — started making the rounds.  And — shades of Cho Seung-Hui or Dylan Klebold — it’s not hard to see why.

This photo of Dan Pehrson, posing with his Bushmaster AR-15, Rock Island Armory / Sendra M16, Remington 700 PSS, Springfield XD, FN Five-seven, H&K USP, Sig Sauer P226, Colt Commander 1911, Glock 22, and fingering his Mossberg Model 88, is clearly confrontational.

In fact, read what one of Pehrson’s fellow gun enthusiasts wrote to him in response to an edgier version of Cassidy’s shot posted on the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association discussion board.  (The 24-year-old Pehrson, by the way, is the organization’s founder and president.)

Nice collection Dan…especially the M16…I like it. However, somehow that photo is mildly disturbing to me. I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s the pizza boxes, toweled out window, nice arsenal or the “eye of the tiger” in your stare…perhaps all of the above.  Would make a great Christmas card though. Take more pics!!

To what extent, however, is Pehrson (or Cassidy) exhibiting his own obsessiveness, power-issues and/or rapport with the dark side as opposed to just playing with perception, snatching an opportunity to manipulate stereotypes in the name of the Second Amendment?

At The BAG, we’ve had many opportunities to hear a photographer’s reaction to his or her own images.  Less common, however, is to hear the photographer’s reaction to public reaction.  After the jump, I invite you to consider Cassidy’s thoughts regarding how the picture — posted on a number of blogs, already — has been received.

Cassidy writes:

A lot of the commentary I’ve seen about Dan’s photo has been along the lines of “Here’s the next Columbine” and I find it fascinating that it’s such a common response. If you put some tattooed biker on the couch there people would just say “Oh there’s Uncle Jim with his guns” but there seems to be a special visual stigma we apply to people who don’t “look” the way we expect and there appears to be something particularly unsettling about the idea of a young person with guns.

I don’t know if this is a post Columbine addition to our collective subconscious or if it existed before. The sparseness of his room seems to affect people too — when you only have two visual cues it’s almost inevitable that you’ll put them together in a linear fashion and get “This guys just sits around his house all day eating pizza and cleaning his guns. If he wasn’t just about to snap, he’d have more ‘stuff’.

But that’s certainly not an accurate assessment of how I found him to be. If you take that image, photoshop out the guns and replace them with Star Wars action figures or a couple of BMX bikes, you’d have his personality pretty accurately captured and I think nobody would find his expression troublesome. Myself, I found him to be completely charming, engaging and well-spoken.

During the course of this book I met a lot of people who seemed to be itching for a fight — they wanted nothing more than to really tell off some anti-gun person and send them away in tears, but Dan seems the complete opposite of that. He’s got a very soft approach when trying to get his point across. He was very supportive of my project even when I explained that it wasn’t a pro-gun book (or anti-gun either, I might add), but just a book about people.

Based on your reactions to The Economist cover I posted last week, I understand the sensitivity of the issue.  Still, in the spirit of The BAG, I’m hoping the discussion might focus more directly on the dynamics of the image and the possible intentions of Mr. Pehrson, rather than on the gun debate itself.

One take I have, breaking the gestalt, is that the pizza boxes are probably more loaded here than the weaponry.

Image © Kyle Cassidy.  2006.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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