“I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too”
“Susan Sontag has pointed out that the vocabularies of photography and hunting overlap. Loading, stalking, aiming, cocking, and clicking are all appropriate examples of their shared linguistic and conceptual terrain. Even “snap shot” designated a military technique before it meant an off-hand photo” (in footnotes, “Snapping a shot meant the same thing as “to snipe,” to shoot at a moving target: see the Oxford English Dictionary (1933), s.v. “snap-shot.”) (Paul Landau, Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa)
I didn’t take any pictures at the firing range, because I was scared to. My camera was not far away — in the trunk of the car — and I’ve become sufficiently un-selfconscious of being the guy with the camera that I might have been able to take a few shots without too much mortification. I would have taken a picture of the “God Bless Our Troops, Especially the Snipers” bumper sticker, which I’ve been able to reproduce on the internet. There was a target you can use that pictures a sinister looking thug holding gun to the head of a young girl (allowing you to enact the fantasy of saving the hostage by shooting the kidnapper), and I would have shot that. I would have tried to pose with the guy who gave us our equipment, and who told us that a .22 was known as a sniper’s weapon. “Don’t ask me how I know that,” he said, and we didn’t (the internet, I suspect).
The technology of the gun and the camera also evolved in tandem. The 1860s saw the perfection of the breech-loading rifle and shotgun, using chemicals enclosed in a casing with an interior striking pin, which prevented the emission of gasses into the face and hands of the user. The 1860s also saw the development of dry-plate photography. Previously, most photographers had to coat their own plates with collodion, a compound first made in Germany from ether and guncotton (cellulose trinitrate), which was the explosive result of dissolving cotton wool ethnic art in nitric acid. Such chemicals were unpleasant, and when gelatin dry-plates became available in 1871, they found an immediate market, for much the same reason rifle cartridges had…In all these guns, ready-made cartridges, produced by factories, left the shooter free to spend time stalking and setting up his shot. Some of the most innovative dry-plate cameras were based explicitly on the mechanism of the Colt revolver, and cinema cameras would later draw elements of their design from the machine gun…Thus breech-loading guns and the Kodak Camera not only drew on the same language; they both sealed the same sort of chemicals in their cartridges. (Paul Landau, Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa)
I didn’t take pictures for the same reason as I would have wanted to: we were all a bit out of our element, and we looked over the characters at the firing range at the same time they looked us over. They had their own equipment, and came alone. Some of them smiled (kindly) at the way we clustered together, at our nervous apprehension and at the seriousness with which we approached the task at hand.. When the counter guy asked us, I said that I had fired a gun before (“but not a pistol”) and I was later mocked for this: it was the answer to the question, but it also showed me to be what I was, a slightly intimidated visitor unsure of his footing, trying to hide it and ascertain it, almost without realizing that that’s what he was doing.
“A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it– by limiting experience as a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.” (Susan Sontag, On Photography)
It’s a strange experience to hold an actual pistol in your hands, and worth doing if only for that reason. It’s so small, and so real, and so still. If you’re like me, the very familiarity of guns is what make them so strange: you’ve seen them a thousand times, you’ve been trained by television, video games, and the written word to think you know what they are and what they do. You were good at Duck Hunt when you were a kid. To hold one in your hands is to feel the difference. You feel all the different ways you could accidentally shoot yourself, all the wrong things you could do to get kicked out of the place, and you live in your mind all the terrible things the guy at the counter warns you against. If an ejected shell lands in your shirt, put the gun down before you try to pull the little piece of hot metal off your skin. Like the time I went white-water rafting, all the warnings made me so apprehensive that I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, even though I knew I did. I could feel that one of us would turn around while the thing was loaded, that one of us would try to clear a jam and lose a finger; I could feel it in my bones, even if my brain understood that none of this would actually happen.
“To enable him to live up to the first law of nature, which is self-preservation, every boy was trained to shoot and to shoot straight just as soon as he was able to lift the heavy rifle and aim it. Then when his father was called away from home by his work the boy became the protector of and provider for the family, and his ability to do both of these things depended on his skill as a sharpshooter, and if you are a bred-in-the-bone American boy you have in the very nature of things inherited the quick draw, the sharp sight and the steady nerve of your hardy forefathers-and so you ought to make a crack shot. ” (Archie Frederick Collins, Shooting For Boys, 1917)
But the very banality of the thing is the strangest part of it. It was hard to push the bullets into the clip, until I figured out that you had to use your other thumb to pull the spring-loader down each time. Which way was the safety, up or down? You had to arrange your fingers around each other, in a very particular but intuitive way. You had to let the recoil come without thinking about it, without bracing against it. And actually firing was a bit more like shooting baskets than I had expected; you pull the trigger at the moment of maximum stillness, releasing into the shot in a natural motion, you see without focusing, and you use your breath to let the target float into line with your arm. This banality lulls you; you start to forget all the scary stuff that the counter guy told you about. It’s just like tossing a crumpled up piece of paper into the trash. It isn’t actually anything at all like a gun on TV. It’s just a piece of metal, responding to the laws of physics. And then, suddenly, you remember. You’re holding a loaded pistol in your hands, and you’re firing it. Or are you? Perhaps you’re only shooting baskets, or taking pictures… And then you remember you’re not.
“In those early days, and for a long time after, there were lots of accidents, and these were caused not so much by carelessness in the use of a gun, for every boy was taught the ethics of shooting-which means the right way to handle a gun with regard to the safety of himself and others-but because the art of making guns was new, and every now and then one exploded and did other things that a good gun should not do. Still no one ever thought of such a thing as keeping a boy from learning to shoot, for it was the lesser of two evils–that is, the boy’s folks would rather take a chance on a good gun going bad than on a bad Indian getting good; and hence he very quickly learned how to take aim and fire at any and every thing which he could skin and eat or which, turn about, might eat him skin and all. After a hundred years of experimenting the guns of today have been perfected to such an extent that those turned out by any reputable maker are not liable to explode nor will they go off prematurely if you do your part. ” (Archie Frederick Collins, Shooting For Boys, 1917)
Sometimes I’m riding my bike on a big road, and it suddenly occurs to me that the slightest movement could actually end my existence, if it was timed just right, and I start to get worried that I will. Or when you’re standing on a cliff looking out, and the vertigo of feeling as if you are actually moving, ever so imperceptibly towards the edge, as if in a dream, as if the open horizon is lifting you out of your shoes with an irresistible force. Your life, your existence, everything that makes you into you, has converged to a single point and it’s right there, right now. You could steer into an oncoming car. You could jump off. You could fire the gun in the wrong direction. You could. The fact that you won’t is precisely not the point; you can feel it in a way that is true, true even if it isn’t actually true. And you’re all the more alive for it.
…a good target shot may be a very poor hunter, and a fairly successful hunter may be only a moderate shot. Shooting well with the rifle is the highest kind of skill, for the rifle is the queen of weapons; and it is a difficult art to learn…Time and again I have seen a man who had, as he deemed, practised sufficiently at a target, come out “to kill a deer,” hot with enthusiasm; and nine out of ten times he has gone back unsuccessful, even when deer were quite plenty.” (Theodore Roosevelt, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman)
To prevent photography from occupying us in the wrong kind of way, it’s useful to learn from Sontag not to grant its central conceit: that it succeeds in knowing the world. That the camera is a phallus is a gun is so obvious that we say so without thinking — when we load or aim a camera, when we shoot a film — yet it’s also just a hunk of plastic and metal, and don’t fool yourself in thinking its not. To analogize is, like taking a photograph, to place something true in the foreground in ways that relegate much that is also true outside the view finder; to say that a camera is a phallus is a gun is to forget that it’s also other things.
“Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder…There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera…professional photographers often have sexual fantasies when they are behind the camera.” [Yet] “while real people are out there killing themselves or other real people, the photographer stays behind his or her camera, creating a tiny element of another world. Photographing is essentially an act on non-intervention…using a camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually. Between photographer and subject, there has to be distance. The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate– all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.” (Susan Sontag, On Photography)
That’s one reason why it’s worth doing. If shooting encourages you act out a fantasy, it also shows you its status as a fantasy. You have to hold the gun in your hands. You have to know in your bones what a gun can do. You have to feel the recoil and try to actually hit the target. You see the shells flying out, and they bounce off you. You have to be there, shooting at a basement target in an industrial wasteland in South San Francisco. When Ralphie was firing his Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock at Black Bart and the film villains attacking his family, he could imagine doing it because he wasn’t, because he was really just sitting there staring into space. But when you actually hold the thing in your hands, you learn the same truth as when he shot his eye out. Photographs don’t reproduce reality, but as they create fantasies of reproduction, they also show us the reality of these fantasies, as fantasies: nothing is as lonely as a picture of an absent loved one, and nothing shows you the impotence of a fantasy pistol like shooting a real one. But reality has a way of remaining real. Human kind might not be able to bear too much reality, but life is also a marvelously beautiful thing in its reality, as is sex, as is shooting baskets, and as is shooting a gun. It doesn’t take long; you come too..
“COME closer to me,
Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.
This is unfinished business with me…. how is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.
I pass so poorly with paper and types…. I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls.
I do not thank you for liking me as I am, and liking the touch of me…. I know that it is good for you to do so.”
(Walt Whitman, “Song for Occupations”)