• Isabella Ji

In Guns We Trust

America’s largest machine-gun shooting range is The Big Sandy. Located in one of the most “gun-friendly” states in the country, The Big Sandy stretches a quarter of a mile across the western desert of Arizona.

Twice a year, a three-day convention is held at The Big Sandy, where extreme gun enthusiasts sample their most sophisticated weapons. It is not unusual to see multiple canons lined up next to armored tanks. Or a vintage Huey UH-I helicopter flying in the air, a model that is commonly known as a symbol for the US involvement in the Vietnam War.

“It almost feels like a private army,” states Jean-François Bouchard, whose project, In Guns We Trust, includes photo portraits of these military enthusiasts, and the spine-chilling images of shells and shipping containers blasted for recreational target practice. In Guns We Trust is an attempt to understand and uncover the horrifying world of extreme gun culture in the US.

The discussion about American gun control has been raging for several years, but it has recently intensified. In the US, the number of public mass shootings are rapidly increasing, with five of the deadliest happening just in the recent 10 years. In 2018, more people in the US died from firearm injuries than any other year since 1968.

Bouchard has been visiting gun ranges across the country for seven years and didn’t start taking any photographs until two or three years ago. "It took a while to get acquainted enough with the subject to feel comfortable exploring it to the extent that I did" said Bouchard, “my work is very much fed by empathy, and trying to see the humanity and commonality that we all have, but trying to do this project with empathy was a challenge.” It was difficult for Bouchard to align himself with this far-right extreme culture.

After many visits to the Big Sandy, Bouchard discovered that many of its regulars had either served in the army themselves or had a family who did. They saw gun culture as not only a legal right, but also a civic duty. Those who visit The Big Sandy believe that guns are necessary to ensure safety and moreover, provide access into a community of like-minded individuals.

“I didn’t change my opinions on the matter at all, but I better understand where these people come from,” explains Bouchard. He added that the people he met at The Big Sandy were “more articulate” than the way the media may portray gun enthusiasts.

Inspired by cinematic photographers, Bouchard approached the topic conceptually, but with a journalistic intention. He uses a flashlight bought from the dollar store to light up his targets and shoots most of his photographs at night. Bouchard wants to enrich storytelling and immerse views of gun culture. With more interest in the aftermath than the action of what was going on during the day, Bouchard takes shots from the sky in the early day or in the dark night; so that the theater of shootings becomes both great beauty and agonizingly alien. Bullet-ridden shipping containers glowing in the night, destroyed vegetation rotting in the night, and exploding or burning cars show the aftereffects of gun enthusiasts passion for heavy armament.

Bouchard’s goal is to better understand the American culture by looking into parts of its subculture. “Subcultures have been documented a lot, but I’m interested in exploring the very extreme, because I believe the extreme can say a lot about the mainstream.” In Guns We Trust walks viewers through a different viewpoint in gun culture, where family and recreational time completely depends on pulling the trigger.

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