In 1999, a mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado sent shockwaves through the United States. Then-President Bill Clinton said: “Something profound has happened to your country because of this. […] maybe because of the scope of it, and I think mostly because of you; how you reacted, all of you. […] we have been learning along with you, a lot about ourselves and our responsibilities as parents and citizens.”
Thirteen years later, when American photographer Andres Gonzalez moved back to the U.S., he pictured a country brimming with the same optimism. “We had survived the Bush era and Obama was spreading a feeling of positivity. So when Sandy Hook happened less than two weeks after I moved back, that really affected me emotionally; I felt almost betrayed,” he recalls. Columbine hadn’t changed America. Violence was still deeply ingrained in American society and guns circulated freely.
A desire to rebel
A few months after that new massacre, Congress rejected a bill making background checks mandatory when buying a gun. “I was so angry, I wanted to protest. And that’s when I started to think about what I could do as a visual storyteller,” says Gonzalez.
He studied the history of violence and of pain, namely in the works of Richard Slotkin and Elaine Scarry. Scarry noted that extreme pain annihilates language, and Gonzalez began to take an interest in mourning rituals, futile and inadequate though they may be.
“I became interested in researching how we use stories to protect or to serve us, and how they help us cope with things that we may not be able to understand or deal with,” he explains regarding his book American Origami, designed and published by Hans Gremmen of Fw: Books.
The origami in question are paper birds inspired by children’s fairy tales and that proliferate after each tragedy in the U.S.—he found hundreds of them at the mind-boggling memorials erected after school shootings. The attention that is comforting but doesn’t help pay for grief counseling, note some eyewitnesses, while others say: “People sent over 65,000 stuffed animals. What on earth do you do with them?” And then there’s another kind of pain: “I was wrong to think I was lucky not to have been shot. […] After the shooting, the school dictated my role in the tragedy. I was a “survivor,” lumped into a separate category.”
A book that unfolds like an origami
Gonzalez’s book itself is a kind of origami. Beneath each double page there is another double page that tells a parallel story; that of the letters sent by the thousands, the personal journals of the victims and the murderers, the gifts. But it’s also the story of an America that doesn’t take responsibiity. “To me, the binding felt symbolic of the way American society behaves. We can choose to view America as a beautiful place and follow the American dream, but right under the surface, or not even under the surface, is a whole different story. A lot of people are in denial about how fucked up America really is,” observes Gonzalez.
On the visible pages, photographs of silent landscapes—banal environments like the one Bill Clinton described in his speech at Columbine. Peaceful roads, simple houses that are a little bruised. One after the other, invariably devoid of human presence, these urban landscapes evoke roads that the victims of the shootings will never again take to go to school. “I wanted these photographs to be very quiet, because tragedies explode in these peaceful, innocent spaces. I didn’t want to do something spectacular but to actually address the issue so that people can think about it, and that’s when I realized that I needed to take a completely different visual approach,” Gonzalez elaborates.
The book unfolds chronologically, one carnage after another, but the parallel narrative within the structure of each story gives the impression of following only one sweeping and single tragedy. And isn’t that actually the case? One shock after another, one presidential speech after another, history repeating itself. On their respective ID cards, we can observe that there are usually more fatalities than the number of minutes it took to produce them. And the closer you get to the end of the book, the more the tragedy intensifies and the more anxious the reader gets–it’s the anxiety of the inevitable, the frustration of knowing that the situation hasn’t changed, and this despite the deathtoll, the testimonies, the activist movements, the gestures of solidarity and the acts of forgiveness.
“People respond like it’s an aberration, but in truth it reflects our history as a very specific one that has always been violent. And that is the tragedy, that perhaps we cannot escape this history. It’s a cynical perspective, but looking closely enough, I don’t know if anyone would come up with a different conclusion,” says Gonzalez.
In these interwoven stories, testimonials play a central role. Written in the first person, pouring forth as a single cathartic breath, without interruptions, they echo each other from one tragedy to another and raise issues that the media, in the urgency of the tragedy, don’t have the opportunity to address.
“I interviewed a lot more people. What’s in the book was chosen because I wanted to show the different ways in which these tragedies affect communities and individuals. It shows how diverse the trauma is after a shooting,” Gonzalez explains.
Written more than a decade after Columbine, the testimony of a Red Lake High School survivor is a reminder of the scope of these tragedies and the need to examine them from a long-term perspective.
By Laurence Cornet
Photographs and texts by Andres Gonzalez
Publié par Fw: Books en collaboration avec Light Work
384 pages, 60 euros