See It Now: "In Guns We Trust"

By David Schonauer   Wednesday May 29, 2019

The place is called Big Sandy.

The largest machine-gun shooting range in the US, it stretches across a quarter of a mile of Arizona desert, and twice a year it is the venue for a three-day convention, where a crowd of legally-armed machine-gun enthusiasts come to fire their state-of-the-art weapons at a range of targets. The options include scrap cars, barrels and explosive charges that go off when hit, noted The Washington Post recently. For those who prefer shooting at something approximating a human, there are arrays of mannequins.

Attendees bring their own weapons and can also test-first AK-47s, M16s, Thompson submachine guns, Uzis, and tripod-mounted .50-caliber Browning machine guns. Each year, an estimated 3.5 million rounds of ammunition are fired during the event, notes Wired.

For the convention attendees, it’s entertainment. For photographer Jean-Francois Bouchard, Big Sandy was a surreal setting, and he captured it in cinematic images that mix documentary photography with conceptual art.

The result is a new book from the Magenta Foundation called “In Guns We Trust,” as well as an exhibition at the Arsenal Contemporary gallery in New York.

Bouchard’s project includes portraits of the military enthusiasts who come to Big Sandy, as well as images of the targets that were blasted over the three-days of gunfire.

“It almost feels like a private army,” Bouchard tells the British Journal of Photography, which describes his project as an attempt to understand and undercover the chilling world of extreme gun culture in the US.

Based in Montreal, Bouchard is the co-founder of Sid Lee, a creative advertising agency. But his passion, notes BJP, is documentary photography. In this case, with a visual twist.

“Captured in the deep hues of arid sunsets, set against a roving desert landscape, Bouchard’s images offer gravitas to the material culture of great destruction brought about by the recreational use of military grade weapons,” notes the Arsensal gallery.

The images evoke “the controlled ravaging of a landscape, the unwavering patriotism of a select group, and an exaltation of weaponry,” notes the gallery.

Coming from Canada, where military-grade guns are tightly regulated, Bouchard approached the project with various assumptions about the people he would meet at Big Sandy. He hoped to test those assumptions. “That was part of the interest to me, stepping out of my echo chamber, and instead of assuming the worst about people who have different beliefs than me to just hang out with them,” he tells Wired.

Most of the people Bouchard met were more than happy to talk and allow him to take their portraits, notes Wired. "It's called gun culture for a reason," Bouchard notes. "It's a multigenerational event. It became very clear to me that when you’re born and raised in this culture, gun ownership is the most natural thing in the world." To understand the appeal, Bouchard even shot automatic weapons a few times himself.

“I didn’t change my opinions on the matter at all, but I better understand where these people come from,” Bouchard tells the British Journal of Photography.

Douglas Coupland, who curated the exhibition, notes that Bouchard’s images “constitute an uncanny recalling of war imagery.” He describes the work as “heightened versions of what are already borderline surrealistic situations.”

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