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Yesterday, The Atlantic published an interview with the Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti, whose portraits of Americans posing with their guns have become a hot commodity on Twitter following the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. Galimberti’s work, like the work of most documentarians (such as Camilo José Vergara, Chris Arnade, and Mark Laita), is consumed mainly by journalists and Bryn Mawr Ph.Ds and people who listen to NPR. As if touring the Mütter Museum, they gawk at the fascinating and pitiful and deformed specimens of humanity and wonder, “Me, oh my. How could it go so wrong?”
But piling on his subjects is unfair, Galimberti thinks:
The success of my photos are the moment is because my photos are really easy to understand. You don’t need to be an expert in photography or even guns to understand the message. It’s impossible to look at these images and not see what’s there. And that makes my photos so easy to share and to be used for a certain, sometimes negative, communication. But I think when people use my photos to judge the people in them, that is a mistake. The real judgment in my work is on the society that allows this. The real problem isn’t these 40 people I photographed; it is the regulations and the culture that permits it.
Ah, there it is. If that isn’t the perfect expression of the technocratic frame of mind, I don’t know what is. Galimberti believes himself to be an empathetic observer, of course, but the message is clear: “These hillbillies are going to kill themselves. We, collectively, have failed them. We’ve failed to protect them from themselves.” It’s a cliché to say “This is why we have Trump,” but . . . this is why we have Trump.
Now, I can understand the documentarian’s appeal. I’m a product of the upper-middle class. I did my time in the service industry. I gaped at the strange and dysfunctional-seeming people in that world. Human spectacle is interesting. Without it, there would be no literature. But then, Galimberti isn’t documenting human spectacle. These aren’t prostitutes and meth addicts. They’re not mass-shooters. They’re hobbyists. They’re collectors. They’re tinkerers. They’re marksmen. “Nobody needs that many guns!” protest the Twitterati. Nobody needs a vinyl record collection, either. Nobody needs a 1955 Ford Thunderbird. Nobody needs a basement woodshop or a backyard forge.
The guns do not mean what the writers at The Atlantic think they mean. One senses, in the things the urban class says, a certain contempt for the grubby and dangerous hobbies of Middle Americans — and a belief that, with a little protesting here and a little lawmaking there, the rednecks, too, can become the nice, safe, responsible yoga-practicing, kale-eating, This American Life-listening citizens all of us were born to be.Published in