Kintsugi is a 15th-century metal art dedicated to the restoration of fine ceramic pottery that uses a gold-infused epoxy to adjoin broken shards of pottery. The word Kintsugi means “golden rejoining.” In the philosophy of the ancient art form shards do not amount to being broken, pieces amount to potential and renewal. From a shattered reality emerges a necessarily new existence, a complete existence albeit with different marks and memory.
Too many Americans are calloused to the reality of gun violence. In the face of repeated news stories, endless data and deadlocked political attitudes, it is understandable that many Americans turn away from the excessive gun violence and its impact. In this context, photographs are a tricky medium. They’re designed to be studied and viewed but slowly we are primed to not look, to refrain from analysis, to relegate humanity because collective hurt, thus far, has not shifted the needle on gun-laws one bit.
“I am not a victim, but a survivor.” — Donzahelia Johnson
When we do look at photos of gun-related violence we tend to see bits, pieces of lives broken. We can play our own helplessness on a loop. This is dangerous if we impose it on the subjects of photographs. Beauty, fortitude, new civic commitment and many other positives can emerge from near disaster. Kathy Shorr’s portrait subjects are not broken, they are witnesses; they are not victims, they are survivors.
Many of the gun-violence survivors in Shorr’s new book SHOT have recovered against odds, put their lives back together and now taking an active role in inviting a public back into the tough dialogue about American gun violence.
SHOT is a poignant pause at which we see American culture in a new light. Shorr says the project is not meant to be polarizing, but rather to connect us to each other and how much we have in common. Even a number of the survivors are responsible gun owners themselves. From across the United States, survivors of all class, age, color and creed are the united face of gun-violence survival; 101 varied, relatable people who have gone through a life altering experience — a community of people whose lives are forever changed, but not limited by, their wounds.
The majority of portraits are taken at the location of the shootings.
Most of these locations, unsurprisingly, are the type of banal places we all visit — shopping centers, places of entertainment, church, neighborhood streets, movie theaters. Violence is among us.
Many of the shootings actually occur in the survivor’s homes. This gives the viewer another chance to connect or relate with the participants and to imagine just how close we all are to the possibility of this happening to someone we know.
The images Shorr shows us are not ones that simply document, or try to dramatize the violence, or even merely present portraits of smiling people who have transcended beyond a traumatic event. Survivors write a statement to accompany their photo. They are still here. They didn’t become a statistic, they did leave this world and for as long as they are here, they will tell their story. The least the rest of us can do is listen.
These survivors might just be the most effective campaigners against an unequal society, against blind gun advocacy, against assumptions about how and why guns exist within and are discharged on our streets. Shorr’s subjects are indeed a “force” to be reckoned with.
In the book SHOT, some folds of the book runs right down the middle of the portraits. The viewer is looking right into the face of a person, but it’s carved down the middle by the gutter. I am not sure if this is a poor design choice or, in fact the opposite. Has Shorr visually divided these faces to reflect their divided lives — lives and identities now defined as what happened before, and what has happened since the violence? Is their sense of self divided? How are they different now they have recovered?
Some of the people Shorr photographed show their wounds, their artificial legs, their scars that run across their body. Survivors lifting their shirts to reveal their scars carries a lot of vulnerability on their part. I thank them for the gesture.
Amid tattoos, wrinkles, stretch marks and exposed under garments are the lines and raised marks on their skin that trace where their bodies were repaired. It is these raised keloids and scar tissue along lines in the body of former trauma that first reminded me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi with its golden fissures.
Kintsugi doesn’t see a broken vessel as destroyed; the essence of its beauty not only survives, it lies latent, and then it thrives. In Kintsugi, the transformation is not just about putting the pieces of one’s broken life back together, it’s about a total reinvention of self in which our shattered pieces are transformed into a unique, beautiful whole.
“Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.” — Thérése D’Encarnacão
Forgive the comparison of people to objects and there’s a takeaway here. By applying the ideas behind Kintsugi as a metaphor to the individuals Shorr has photographed, we can touch upon future hope and a forward progression. These individuals may have been deeply hurt and likely never want to revisit the pain of their experiences, but by having the courage to do so, and to present to Shorr’s camera, they may have uncovered new possibility for them … and for us.
They are together in themselves and more importantly they are together collectively. Their lives from this point forward are made of a new set of challenges but they know they are not taking on these challenges in isolation. Shorr’s SHOT gives us a chance to listen. Take it.
Kathy Shorr depicts the determination of the human spirit … cracks and all.
Kathy Shorr is a freelance photographer based in New York. Her work has been exhibited at Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY, and Sariedo Gallery, NY. Shorr’s series ‘Limousine’ was included in the Visa Pour L’Image.
Her work has been published in Popular Photography, Newsweek, French Photo, Camera Austria, Photo Review, On Seeing, New York Observer, and The Village Voice.
As a freelance educational consultant, Ms. Shorr works with diverse groups of all ages in helping to learn how to express themselves through the lens and screen arts.
To see more of Shorr’s work, visit www.kathyshorr.com.
Visit www.shotproject.org to purchase a copy of SHOT.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in F-Stop Magazine, April, 2017. All images © Kathy Shorr, used with permission.