One evening, photographer Kyle Cassidy found himself at a dinner party, randomly seated next to a presidential campaign staffer who was lamenting the difficulty of crafting a message: how could he talk about guns in a way that would appeal to the widest array of gun owners? Even a pro-gun message is rife with potential missteps. Because while many people own guns, people are different, and so they all own them for different reasons.
It was a chance musing that sparked a life-changing journey in Cassidy’s life. “I thought it would be a good experience to drive across the country and talk to people about it,” he says. The resulting profiles were published as a 2007 book, Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes.
For any gun-loathing liberal, the fully loaded collection of photographs is borderline trolling. A toddler in Pennsylvania draws at her play table as her father stands proudly at her side, assault rifle at the ready. A punkish Missouri couple hangs in their kitchen, where a wall of crucifixes serves as the backdrop to a long shotgun being cradled like a baby. An entire family in Arizona holds their weaponry around the dinner table while the trusty dog sits by their side. The images juxtapose domestic mundanity with lethal militarism in a way that can make a leftist’s skin crawl. But that doesn’t stop the subjects from smiling right through the lens because, to them, it’s perfectly normal–even responsible–to arm their family to the nines.
“I’d like, and this seems to have worked, in retrospect, for people to be able to have conversations about things that are important to them without yelling or name calling,” Cassidy says. “I hope that viewers are transformed into being more aware of what’s important to them, why it’s important to them, and why something else can be important to someone else.”
Indeed. Those creepy, gun-toting smiles–once their immediate shock factor wears off–actually look kind, even welcoming, to the viewer. And that’s the really disturbing part of the portraits: the reminder, or perhaps revelation, that people who proudly carry the armament of a small militia can still be perfectly loving people in every other aspect of their life.
“All of those people invited me into their homes and a bunch of them went a lot further–I slept on people’s couches and people fed me and I went to movies and theme parks with them, it was basically a giant vacation visiting people I’d never met. And it’s not rocket science—be nice to people and they’ll be nice back to you,” Cassidy says, adding that he’s still surprised when people react to the photos by wondering at how friendly the subjects look. “One of the things that makes life difficult for all of us is our ability to view people as ‘the other’—they’re not like me, they don’t have the same depth of feeling that I do, they don’t love their kids or whatever,” he explains. “Photography in general, and documentary photography in specific, I think, provides an opportunity to make one-sided things multidimensional.”
“That person who you hate with a seething passion whenever you see them on TV goes home to a family that loves them and they buy presents of their mothers and they have a best friend who thinks they’re awesome and they let the dog sleep on the bed and all that. Over the years I’ve found that people are pretty much like people–most everybody’s trying to do good in the world, we just disagree about what’s good sometimes.”