Stephanie Sparks is outside when the gun goes off. The moment is brief. She’s outside, and her five-year-old son just shot her two-year-old daughter in the chest. His rifle is the size and color of a toy – which is exactly why he chose it. When Keystone Sporting Arms started marketing their rifles to children – not just redesigning the weight and size, but pulling kids in by including child-friendly colors like neon pink, orange with flames, and leafy landscapes – they must have done so with the assumption that a five-year-old would not accidentally shoot his two-year-old sister. Then again, how could anyone expect that a five-year-old wouldn’t accidentally forget to check the chamber? What would it take to get you to leave the country and chase a photography project? What do you find so compelling that you would force yourself to endure uncomfortable situations if it meant you’d grow as a photographer? For Dutch photog An-Sofie Kesteleyn, it was a candy colored rifle.
After hearing of the two-year-old’s accidental death, Kesteleyn couldn’t shake the image of the rifle her brother used. “I was inspired to start the photography series ‘My First Rifle’ because I looked up the type of gun. I saw that there was this company in Pennsylvania that made these guns especially designed for children. That was my motive to go to the U.S. and do this story. It would have been a different story if a kid took her/his dad’s gun and shot with it. Of course very tragic, but different. It was really about these specific Crickett rifles that even carry the brand name ‘My First Rifle’. I think it’s very disturbing, because they shoot for real and they are shown as toys….I wanted to go find these kids and meet their parents….I wanted to go understand what they thought, and what they thought was so good about buying such a gun for their six-year-old.”
And so Kesteleyn left Amsterdam for Ohio, and drove across the country stopping at gun ranges and gun shops asking families for permission to take portraits of their children beside their Crickett rifles. Beside each photograph, she asked the child to write down something that they were afraid of. Composing the series in this way caused a clash between the maturity of the gun and the innocence of the gun-owning child.
“It was mostly interesting to me to see how they thought about it. I went to the U.S. to do this project with a kind of open mind – because I found I had to. I had to go with a neutral opinion in order to understand these parents.”
Sometimes art is not meant to answer anything, but to value the questioning itself. It takes guts, fortitude, and a lot of faith in yourself to travel as an outsider among communities who hold beliefs very different from yours – and hold them strongly. It takes even more to confront others about those beliefs when they may already perceive you as a threat. So, why go through all the trouble of traveling to another country just to cover another story about one kid in America accidentally shooting another? Maybe because, on some level, we weren’t shocked by two-year-old Caroline Spark’s death. Maybe because gun deaths involving children (especially due to accidents or mental illness) are immediately associated with the United States. And maybe because calmly figuring out why is better than angrily pointing fingers without resolution.
“A thing that almost everybody I met said was that they think that gun violence only happens if you give the wrong people guns. So all the gun accidents happening are because the criminals get guns in their hands. They think if only good people have guns, there would be no accidents at all. And teaching the kids shooting from a very young age makes them used to the guns so that they would never handle the gun in an irresponsible way. A lot of the parents said that, for example, with kids in Europe who have never seen a gun, if there would ever be a situation where they are threatened or something, and they had a gun around, they wouldn’t know how to use it and that would lead to bigger problems.”
“It was sometimes hard to understand all of this for me,” she continued. “But it is an interesting topic for sure. Because how can you ever take all the guns out of criminals’ hands? There will never be a day that all the guns will be forbidden in the U.S. They will always exist.”
Most families she approached did not share her same enthusiasm about discussing gun culture through a series of portraits of their gun-owning children. Of the hundreds of families Kesteleyn approached, only fifteen families agreed to have their children photographed.
“It was a very intense trip…This project was all about finding the kids, talking to the parents, finding and convincing them….It was really, really hard. Sometimes I didn’t have anyone to photograph for like a week and a half. That was really frustrating….I was very worried about my project at those times. But I didn’t give up – every single day I got up and drove to ranges and shops hoping that day I would find more families.”
The issue of gun control was an especially sensitive subject at the time because there had also been several other gun accidents in the United States involving young children. In early April, a four-year-old boy in Tennessee shot and killed a forty-eight-year-old woman, and just days later, six-year-old Brandon Holt was killed in New Jersey after being shot in the head by his four-year-old playmate. The Newton, Connecticut shootings also hadn’t produced any new significant laws in Washington by that time.
“I initially thought that these guns would be easily accessible for the children,” she said. “Like the Kentucky story, the gun was just laying on the porch. But during my trip, I saw that I was wrong. Because the guns did not just lay around. They were very much locked in safes, sometimes even at grandma’s house to be unreachable for the kid. When I talked to parents about the Kentucky story, they all said it was bad parenting and had nothing to do with in general having a gun for your kid.”
MORE FROM OUR INTERVIEW…
FM: Was there much similarity between the parents you approached who allowed their children to have these rifles?
AK: I saw all kinds of people/parents who bought these guns for their kids. It seriously goes from low to middle to rich class. I’ve been with families that were rather poor but had one for their daughter, and other families that were really rich. Like one girl – she had three of these .22 Cricketts. She could choose which color she felt like shooting with.
FM: How did you feel after hearing about the recent shooting at the University of California Santa Barbara?
AK: Every time there is a shooting, I always have to think about the movie Elephant from Gus van Sant, which made a big impression on me. I think it’s very sad these things happen, but I do not know if there will ever be a day when this will stop. They keep on making guns and the guns are all over the country.
FM: How did you choose to shoot and edit the series?
AK: I photographed everything digital full frame with a Nikon D3. For [editing] and post-production, I was very lucky to be a participant of the Joop Swart masterclass, where we had the chance to edit our series with masters in photography. It was kind of funny though because I didn’t have many pictures to edit. I had like fifteen portraits, compared to other participants who had like thirty to fifty photographs. My series was just different.
FM: What about your background in photography? When you first began pursuing photography, you didn’t initially intend to focus upon photojournalism, correct? What did you originally intend on focusing upon? Why did it change? Do you want to continue pursuing your career in photography by focusing on journalism?
AK: I started photography when I was eighteen. I went to photography school in Belgium. I have always been a documentary photographer. I just always said I didn’t want to go work for a newspaper when I graduate. But I got this job offered, so I thought: let’s try and see what it is like.
And it’s been really interesting to me. I have travelled a lot around the globe. I work as a freelancer in Amsterdam for several magazines and newspapers, with mainly working for de Volkskrant. I like my job now, because I can always decide to go travel for some time to make a new project. They understand and they support me very much in what I do. So then I ‘m back, work again for some money to realize a new project again and so on…
FM: You’ve mentioned before that you are very inspired by the work of photographers Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Alec Soth. What intrigues you about them?
AK: I think it’s their use of color – especially with Shore and Eggleston. I admire color….I like the randomness that Shore and Eggleston catch in an image. Because of the stunning light and colors they are amazing pictures. Alec Soth I admire a lot too because he mixes portraiture together with documentary and he is the best in telling a story through pictures if you ask me. For me, it’s like visually reading a book….
It’s also because of seeing their work that I had this strong feeling to go visit The States. I went to The States for my first project (Pearlstreet 165) in 2010. Since then, I have travelled a lot around the US.
FM: Is there any thing(s) in particular that you hope a viewer walks away thinking about after viewing your series?
AK: No, not really. I think everybody is free to interpret this series how he or she wants. You can interpret it positively, you can find it negative. A lot of people thought these guns were toys in my pictures….I think that it is a very crazy thing that they shoot for real, and they look like toys.