The SHOT Project: A Conversation with Kathy Shorr
By Frances Molina
This morning the students of Parkland, Florida returned to Margory Stoneman Douglas High School for the first time since the massacre that left more than thirty of their classmates dead and injured and left countless others in the grips of unimaginable emotional turmoil. This was the deadliest school shooting in the last five years and now, finally, thanks to the courage and compassion of these students the same tired and unproductive conversation around gun violence in America is experiencing a long overdue interruption.
United in their fear, their frustration, and their hope for positive change, the students of Parkland, Florida are raising their voices in protest. These kids - because let’s be honest, that’s what they are - are already making massive waves, confronting legislators and politicians who tweet their prayers and condolences for shooting victims with one hand and with the other, accept millions of dollars in campaign donations from the NRA every year. Joined by groups of students from across the country, they are “calling b.s.” on a political system that values the right to bear arms over their right to pursue an education in a safe and comfortable environment, unburdened by the thought “Will I be next?”.
In order to show our support for the Parkland, Florida survivors and to respond to their call to action, Musée Magazine sat down with photographer Kathy Shorr to discuss her work on the “SHOT Project”, a visual narrative that pays tribute to gun violence survivors, bringing their strength and their spirit into a conversation largely dominated by silence and statistics.
Frances Molina: First things first, if you could give your 30-second elevator pitch of what the SHOT project is about, just to introduce it to our readers before we get into the deeper, more specific questions.
Kathy Shorr: Of course. SHOT is a documentary on shooting survivors in America. It features 101 survivors from across the United States. They are all races, many ethnicities, ages 8 to 80, from high and low profile shootings, including gun owners and an NRA member. Most of the people were photographed at the location where they were shot.
F: I wanted to start by asking how did you find these survivors for your series? Was it a good deal of outreach on your part?
K: I spent a good deal of time on the computer tracking people and trying to find survivors. For the people from the high profile shootings, like Aurora for instance, I went onto Wikipedia and got the names of the people who had survived those shootings. And then I went into the White Pages and tried to match the age with the name. For those high profile shootings, I sent an old-fashioned letter to the survivors, telling people what I wanted to do and sent the letter to probably at least 10 people.
So it went from good old-fashioned letters to looking for old newspaper stories. I called non-profits, lawyers, doctors - just so I could make a connection with someone. Because when you do a project like this, it’s important to have somebody act as a liason. However, as I got towards the middle of the project, it started to get some press. By the end of it, I had survivors actually calling me and saying they wanted to be a part of it.
F: That’s incredible legwork especially when you’re reaching out to so many strangers. Did you experience a lot of push-back? Was that the motivation behind writing the letters and giving it a more personal, human touch?
K: Well actually, once I connected with people, I had a pretty good return rate. I think only one person refused. The 101st person in the project is a Native American woman and I’m extremely proud of her and that she’s part of the project because it took me two years to get her to agree to the project. And I felt it wouldn’t be a project about America if it didn’t have representation of the Native American population.
I found that survivor’s story in the newspaper about a domestic violence massacre in South Dakota. I called the tribe, and I managed to get in touch with the grandmother of the woman who survived this. We talked for like 2 months on the phone. The massacre had happened a year before, and the woman was in a very fragile state - her boyfriend had killed her best friend, and I think 3 other other people; she was the only survivor.
Right before Thanksgiving, I said to the grandmother, “I really want her to be in the project but I have to finish by December. I have to finish the project by my deadline.” And then on Thanksgiving weekend, on the anniversary of the shooting, the grandmother called me and said that the survivor’s therapist and her family wanted her to be part of the project. So it all kind of worked out but, it took a lot of patience and perseverance.
F: Oh definitely. Patience is key to any kind of photographic pursuit I’ve found.
K: Yeah, I mean other than that case when people heard about the project, the survivors were just an extraordinary group of people. And so many times I heard them say, “I’m doing this because if it helps one other people not have to experience what I had to experience, then I’m really glad that I’m doing this project”. That was a recurring statement.
F: How important was it for you to include both stories and photographs paired together in the project?
K: I asked everybody to write something, something they wanted to get off their chest, something they wanted to say. Of course, not everybody does that. But I think probably 65% to 75% of the survivors did write something, and that’s why I wanted the voice of the survivors in the project. Because that had great meaning to me: to hear their words, how they feel, how they felt, what happened, how they are now. Some people gave me something when I met them, some people emailed me. One person wrote one sentence, another person wrote five pages. It was a whole gambit of different things, but we just tried to convey the feelings of the people I photographed.
F: The stories that accompany these photographs are incredibly heart-breaking, but it’s the photos themselves that can be really harrowing. A lot of the photos that aren’t just portraits are survivors showing their scars to the camera. Did you hesitate at all in including the more graphic images? Do you feel like it was necessary to include them?
K: Gun violence is such an abstraction. I finished this project in 2015, so it’s a little bit different with what we’re seeing on television now with the students in Florida. But at that time in doing this project, you really didn’t see or hear much about survivors. They were kind of a group that just carried on.The first person I photographed I asked him if I could photograph his scar and he said, “Of course!”, and just whipped his shirt up and I photographed it. And then I thought, ‘Okay I’m going to ask people if they want to show me their scar and I’ll photograph it’. But everybody did it on their terms.
What I did with this project, I had everyone working with me put out what they wanted to be out there, their message. So my photographing those scars - it’s all consensual and it’s all empowering because the survivor felt that they wanted people to see what had happened to them. It’s meant to show people what happens, but it’s done with the permission of the survivors. I’m not so sure if putting out really violent disturbing pictures of people who are no longer with us isn’t going to feed into a kind of commodification of violence.
F: I absolutely agree. I think what’s so important about your work is that it allows people who are in silence to control the narrative or to create a narrative of their own. And like you said, it is a slippery slope - it can turn from empowering to exploitative really quickly.
K: Exactly. This is why this project is unique because it’s very respectful of the survivors, yet it’s going to hit you over the head when you look at it.
F: I read online in The Guardian that this body of work was actually inspired by your own personal experience with gun violence. Could you speak at all to that experience? Has embarking on this project brought you any healing or relief from that memory?
K: Well, I don’t know if I had to be healed from that. It was a terrible moment and a very scary moment and something I don’t wish on anyone - to come face to face with a person pointing a gun at you and your child and not knowing whether that person is going to use it. It’s a very helpless feeling. As I said in the Guardian, it’s in my psyche; it’s a part of me. But it’s not something I think about all the time. But, yes it was very scary.
F: I think what struck me most about the SHOT Project is that you really do have survivors that come from all walks of life and who come away from all different kinds of gun violence experiences. Did you intentionally search for different kinds of survivors, or did it just sort of pan out that way?
K: If I didn’t do that, I don’t think it would have been taken as seriously. And there would be all kinds of people saying, “Well you don’t have this kind of person, you don’t have a Native American person, you don’t have a gay person, etc.” So rather than have people question the validity of it being a project about America, I tried my best to get as many types of Americans that I could find in the project.
And it just worked out amazingly well that I had a nice diversification of people and situations. Whats more, I never refused anybody I found or who found me. When you’re taking 101 portraits, not every portrait is going to be as good as the next one. But even if the picture wasn’t my favorite, or I didn’t think I got such a great picture of somebody, that wasn’t a reason to not have them in the project.
F: How important was it for you to create a diverse portrait of gun violence survivors?
K: I have 101 people in the project, and if you happen to be looking at the project and you say, “I can’t identify with any of these people. None of them look like me or have a profession I have - I can’t relate to any of them.” Well, if you can’t identify with the African-American deputy sheriff who was shot by her husband in Dallas, then maybe you’ll be able to identify with the fact that she was shot in a Walmart parking lot because you go to Walmart all the time. So the location was just as important to have as well since most shootings happen in banal, normal, everyday places. They don’t happen in haunted houses or on dark streets - they happen in places that we frequent in our daily lives. You have to look at it and say, “Something in here resonates with me”.
F: You write on your website that SHOT is not meant to be polarizing but a lot of people view the issue of guns in America as highly polarizing. How did you keep your work grounded in honesty and compassion? But also, were any of your own politics involved with making this project?
K: Well, most gun owners want responsible gun laws. The NRA has created this black-and-white thinking - either you’re for guns, or you’re entirely against the Second Amendment and freedom. All the gray areas have been swept away by a political organization that is paying people off to think like they do and vote like they do.
But I like the American West very much, and I visit Montana every year. Even though I’m from the East Coast and have no interest in owning a gun, I’ve met all kinds of different people who come from a very different culture, who have different values. I thought, let’s not lump everybody into one category. I mean, no civilian needs to have an assault rifle. That’s nobody’s right to have a killing machine. But I believe responsible gun owners are the people that can change the dialogue in America. And this project was meant to get people to start talking.
F: Do you feel that SHOT and projects like it have the potential to influence the national conversation about gun violence in a major way?
K: I think it can make people start to talk. I mean, will the kids in Florida be able to make change? They might not be able to see everything they want to have happen, but they’ve started their dialogue. I think all of these things have a cumulative effect. We have to work on a lot of different fronts and to start communicating, rather than let people who have no business telling us how to run our lives have all the control. I mean, I feel the first optimism I’ve had since the election to see how these survivors have taken it into their own hands. I think we all have to do that kind of thing. I’m going to be part of a change and a part of a way of people maybe opening their eyes to things they may not have thought about before.
F: My last question for you - I know you said that the SHOT project officially ended in 2015, but have you ever given any thought to making it an ongoing work or expanding it in any way? And if so, how can other survivors or gun safety advocates get involved?
K: This kind of project I could do for the rest of my life, and unfortunately not have a shortage of subjects. But no - I think we have a lot of problems in this country that need to be addressed and I think I’ve actually said everything I have to say about gun violence with this project. I’ve shown who it’s affecting, what it’s doing - I don’t really have anything else to say on it. I’ve done what I needed to do.
So many survivors still get in touch with me; I get emails all the time. I just got one from a woman in the UK who sent me a really powerful email about what happened to her, how she doesn’t have anyone to speak to there, and how thankful she was for the book. And I always write back to the survivors, and I just have a conversation with them.
F: I think that’s so much more important than ending up with a big project or having your picture taken or your story published in a book. I think what’s more important is that human connection, that conversation, and that capacity to be honest and compassionate.
K: And I’m still working the project. There’s going to be a show in Germany, I have a lot of things happening in France now. But in terms of continuing the project - no. That’s it for me photographing it, but I’m happy to contribute to the dialogue.