Is it possible for a photographer to take a neutral approach to a controversial subject such as gun control? Neil DaCosta has been attempting that with his ongoing project “Open Carry,” which looks at people who carry guns in places where laws permit citizens to display arms as they go about their lives. DaCosta, an advertising and editorial photographer in Portland, Oregon, tells PDN by email, “Growing up on the East Coast, it is fascinating to me that people can legally carry assault rifles down the street in some parts of our country.” Finding subjects carrying guns openly, ranging from “a preacher, an LGTB group, a ‘prepper,’ and a diverse group in urban Detroit,” DeCosta has made photographs in Vancouver, Eugene and Lincoln City in Oregon, Seattle and Olympia in Washington and Detroit, Michigan as part of the project. PDN asked him about his approach, in an edited interview.
PDN: How did you find and approach these groups? Were they open to being photographed, or did you need to convince them? Do you approach someone differently to photograph them if they’re openly carrying a gun?
Neil DaCosta: Facebook has been the best platform for contacting the groups. Everyone so far has been pretty active in the open carry movement and openly publicizes that they open carrying. When I first contact them, I tell them about my project and make it clear that this is an un-biased look at open carry, neither pro or anti gun rights. That usually leads to a phone call where I can explain things a little better. I am never pushy and if anyone has even the slightest doubt, I do not try to pursue them.
PDN: What have been the challenges of working on the project? How do you approach making pictures that look different from each other?
ND: This project is meant to be a portrait of the act of open carrying, so [it focuses] mainly on the guns themselves. But in order to make the images different from each other (instead of just close ups of guns), I also add in elements of the surroundings and the people who are open carrying. Before I start taking photos, I talk with the gun owners and try to incorporate some of their personal story/experiences into the photographs. As an example, the first person I photographed for this project was the guy in the grocery store (he needed some orange juice and a key made). A few weeks prior, a group protested, [asking] the grocery store’s parent company to ban guns from their stores. The company said they were going to support their customers’ Second Amendment rights and continue to allow firearms in its stores.
PDN: The photos of the Pink Pistols, in particular, depict a group that’s not often associated with bearing arms—was their action a response to the shooting in Orlando, or do these images predate that?
ND: The Pink Pistols have been around since 2000, I believe, and have many different chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada. They have definitely been in the news since the Orlando tragedy. I photographed them just following the tragedy at the Olympia and Seattle Pride festivals. They have been the only people that I have seen in person get backlash from the community for open carrying. But at the same time, they received a lot of praise and general interest from others.
PDN: Do you notice a reaction from the people around your subjects? Or is this such a common sight that it goes unnoticed in the places where you’re photographing?
ND: There has been a wide range of reactions from people that I have witnessed, from general interest, to complete obliviousness, to anger (as mentioned above with the Pink Pistols). The people open carrying are very aware of their surroundings and if they notice someone looking at their gun, they will say “Hello” and engage in a conversation. They want people to know that they have rights and can practice such rights. I am not sure if me being there with a camera puts people at ease a little as well, because the majority of the subjects have had multiple interactions with the police, which I have not witnessed. In Detroit, the police kept a close watch on us, but never got out of their vehicles to engage the group.
PDN: What kind of reactions you’ve gotten from viewers of the series? Are there visual strategies you take to keep the images neutral?
ND: The only places I have really shown this series outside of Portland so far has been at portfolio showings in New York and Los Angeles and it definitely gets some negative reactions. Not the series but the fact that people can legally carry around loaded guns. Both New York and California don’t allow open carry, so it is pretty shocking to most people there that this is allowed in a lot of states. Growing up in New Jersey, I never knew open carry was legal until I moved to the West. When showing the series to colleagues in Oregon, many of them have stories of seeing people open carrying before in person.
From the start, I wanted to keep my approach neutral. As for visual strategies to keep it neutral, I have focused on the act of open carry itself and not people’s reactions to it. Once you start showing another person reacting to the subject in the actual photograph, it gives a certain connotation to the work that I have been trying to avoid. The reactions in public to open carry is still fascinating, but it is not the goal of this project.
I think by [aiming for neutrality], it opens the series up to a wider range of viewers. If it had an anti-gun agenda, it would ostracize the pro-gun audience and vice versa. Preaching to the choir. By keeping it neutral, I hope it can lead to actual conversations between viewers of the opposing sides other than “I am right, you are wrong.”