Zed Nelson talks about Gun Nation, Love me, and A Portrait of Hackney

26th March 2020

2016, somewhere in the American West. Zed Nelson has been challenged by a gun-owner to join her on a shooting expedition somewhere out in the wilderness. When you are photographing people it happens quite often, he explains. ‘If you want to inhabit their world people like to lay down a gauntlet and test you out.’ So, after a lengthy drive into the mountains, the group’s pair of 4×4 vehicles stop and their small crew of gun aficionados unload their enormous cache of high powered hunting weaponry, arranging it carefully on the ground. Targets are erected and turns are taken to unload live rounds. It is eventually Zed’s turn to pick up one of these killing machines and put it to use. The experience, he recalls, was both terrifying and exhilarating: ‘I have this rather pathetic, male, childish fixation with [guns]… my parents banned me from having toy guns so I made them myself out of wood and nails’. And it turns out that the subsequent two decades spent wielding a camera – sometimes even in war zones – prepared him perfectly for the occasion. ‘It turns out that I’m a brilliant shot. I think it was because of film making and photography, because you learn to not shake and hold something steadily’. For the first time during his fascinating and lengthy conversation with MadeGood, Nelson wavers slightly and loses his train of thought. Gun sights and the photo lens never seemed closer. It’s an uncanny sensation audiences of his work will be familiar with; a sense of witnessing yourself appear and then disappear inside the troubled, compromised worlds he has shot.

On this occasion he was shooting a short film follow up to the seminal 1999 photography book Gun Nation; a moving and provocative collection of portraits of gun owners and gun culture created in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine massacre. Nelson returned to the same locations 17 years later to meet his original subjects again, to try and understand why they remained so committed to their weapons and so impervious to calls for greater control and regulation, in the context of a seemingly never-ending cycle of mass shootings. His companion on this occasion was a woman in her 40s. On camera she possesses an icy, intelligent gaze, which wavers only slightly when recalling her first meeting with Zed. ‘17 years ago when we last met I think it ended it tears for me, because I realised again what I would do if they came to take my guns. That would be the end of it for this country for sure and I’m not willing to hand that over… I know I’m able to do it and I know I would do it’.

Nelson responds, ‘What is “it”?’

‘Protect my rights’ she says. ‘The rights of my friends. The rights of my loved ones. The rights of this country.’

‘You mean armed struggle?’

‘I think so. I wouldn’t let it go easily.’

In the relaxed confines of his East London home, Nelson describes himself as a documentarian looking for simple stories, but who in doing so has been drawn into increasingly complex, disturbing worlds. The wide-ranging interview is never more fascinating than when he describes the subtle arts of documentary photography: how to overcome the deep suspicion American gun owners have of liberal/left-wing media types, and how to get them to sit for a portrait. How overhearing hipster conversations in Hackney coffee shops inspired a best-selling book of portraits. How he turned an arduous schedule of mainstream magazine commissions into a ground-breaking book on the global beauty industry. The films are a treasure trove of inspiration for budding documentarians, and an insight into how a long career as a professional artist, that started with typical earnest naivety, can evolve into a complex and culturally significant body of work.

More than anything Nelson’s reflections suggest a blueprint for bringing grown-up, politicised and empathetic yet sharp and uncluttered artistic material into life. A career journey that took in a terrifying armed ambush in Afghanistan gradually evolved into a calm, insightful world view with a distaste for the corrupting influence of violence and money. It’s a compelling journey. ‘This grew out of ten years of work on other subjects. I couldn’t have done [Gun Nation] if I hadn’t produced all the preceding work, which was documentary reportage around the world, going to war zones, Somalia and Afghanistan, Angola. I slowly realised that all the weapons being used in these wars were made in our home countries in the West, and I became increasingly frustrated by seeing that and realising that those weapons had been sold by corporate arms dealers or donated by our governments for political’. As witness to a globalised economy of violence, Nelson began to see American domestic gun violence as a component of this. The number of deaths per year can only be compared to outright warfare: Nelson quotes a figure of half a million, between the two instalments of Gun Nation, which is near enough correct. The five worst mass shootings in American history have all taken place between 1999 and 2016. In the same period precisely 213,169 died as the result of intentional assault with a gun while 360,433 were suicide. Today, 73% of all homicides are gun related in the US, compared to just 3% in the UK and 38% in Canada. Nelson’s intimate, provocative photographs in the 1999 book captured an epidemic in its earliest stages. It’s hard to fathom how 17 years later American gun culture had utterly failed to correct. This is what drew Nelson back, to track down his original subjects and try and understand how so little had changed.

It has been clear for some time that the American gun cult is underpinned by an axis of the National Rifle Association, the gun industry and the conservative mass media, articulated through a latent and deeply ingrained conservative/libertarian/evangelical Christian ideology (while Nelson never crosses into this territory, it is quite clearly adjacent to white supremacism as well). Allusions to the mythos of the western frontier abound. ‘I was really interested in how the icon of the gun had been sold’ says Nelson. ‘It’s been sold as an American ideal, as an icon of freedom and independence. And that is how the advertising industry as far back as the ‘Wild West’ era has packaged and sold guns. They made up a myth… they built a whole culture around guns that [is] deeply embedded.’ It is certainly clear from the film that gun cultists believe themselves to be protagonists in an existential struggle for survival, encircled by “bad guys”, liberals and government. With their fears marshalled by the NRA and Fox News, they represent a formidable bulwark to rational, compassionate efforts to reduce bloodshed.

Anyone who pays any attention to sensible coverage of American gun violence knows all of this, but given the impasse there is a particular value in Nelson’s humane, considered analytical documentary approach. When faced with the force of marketing, ideology and myth ‘you have to counteract that with the same degree of skills and enthusiasm’, and, I would add, with the same ability to tell a powerful story.

Nelson has spent his career seeking out stories of brutality, both in the officially designated war zones we hear about in the media – Afghanistan, Somalia South Sudan and Angola to name a few that Nelson has worked in – but also at the very heart of western culture. In between the two instalments of Gun Nation he produced Love Me, a photography book about the international beauty industry. In similar fashion, Love Me was an attempt to consider the human experiences at the heart of a powerful, sometimes overwhelming global consumer culture. Nelson explains that, like with the gun industry, he was interested in ‘how you package a product or an idea and sell it to as many people as possible. [In this case] the product was a western beauty ideal, which is often blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin and how you sell this not just to people in the west, but to people all over the world, in Africa, in China, in Brazil’. His travels brought him into contact with eye widening and leg lengthening surgeries in China, toxic skin-lightening processes in Senegal, nose jobs in Iran and beauty contests in Brazilian prisons. Strange, extreme and costly activities all in the service of a homogenous beauty ideal transmitted by mass media and digital platforms to every corner of the world.

Not all of his portraits were extreme. ‘I wanted to show how similar everyday beauty is [to these extreme procedures]. How really weird things come to be normalised’. Again he nudges his audience to recognise themselves in the nexus of cultures and economies at the end of his lens. More so than Gun Nation, Love Me provides what at first can appear to be a more sensational insight into the human condition. It is telling that Nelson funded Love Me by pitching his different trips around the world to magazines as individual projects or stories. There is an inherent compromise to be made in developing an artistic or journalistic project such as this. Flights and sustenance must be covered. Access must be gained. The risk with this form of reportage is that it becomes something of a safari, or freak show, where a largely affluent audience can gaze upon exotic and dangerous creatures from a safe distance. It is to Nelson’s credit that he recognises these compromises, and that he takes care to steer his personal projects always from what he describes as a ‘National Geographic approach’: those high resolution, richly exotic images of tribespeople and distant cultures, framed as the ‘other’. Instead Nelson invites us to see ourselves.

Nelson’s third monograph, A Portrait of Hackney, exemplifies this commitment to street level human storytelling. A Hackney native, Nelson describes his ‘traditionally poor’ home borough as becoming ‘hipster ground zero… the unspoken backdrop is gentrification. I could see that house prices were going up and up and up. The type of people moving into the borough were changing. That local people were perhaps being slowly displaced. You have these two worlds inhabiting the same place’. This is well trodden literary and photographic ground, but gentrification in Hackney retains a singular fascination for those fundamentally implicated in its transactions; especially locals who have witnessed, and benefited from, the implied transference of economic and cultural capital from the working to the middle and upper classes. ‘Sometimes I think that the book – the thing I’ve produced – has been co-opted by the very forces it was supposed to critique. Has it just become a product of [gentrification]? It’s a horrible feeling that that might be true’.

But Nelson’s photography performs a vital function in jarring what might otherwise be an overly comfortable or passive audience into a greater understanding of their own place in a world of extremes. The portrait of young gang members posing in front of £2m terraces in London Fields are not an artifice. A flap of skin being pulled up like a sheet during a facelift is a common cosmetic procedure. Guns are romantic, emotional obsessions for a great many Americans… Nelson’s portraits are a point of connection across what can easily become abstract social divisions: an opportunity for the one to see the other, to compromise momentarily and reveal a truth hidden in plain sight.

Nelson recognises the importance of realigning the conventions of photography. ‘In our media we love to do stories about ”them” – the developing world as we call it. They’re allowed to be fighting each other and we shoot it in grainy black and white. And then we do “us” and it’s in colour and it’s about lifestyle. And I thought about reversing these two things ‘. Money and consumer culture warps everything around it. Photography can show exactly how.

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