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Coming to grips with guns

Heidi Lender had never liked guns, nor had she ever had to confront her distaste for them. She didn’t even know anyone who owned a gun growing up and never had fired anything more powerful than a BB gun.

Lender started dating a guy whose secret hobby was collecting them. He was respectful of Lender’s not wanting to see his guns around the house and kept his guns hidden, but he did sleep with a gun by his pillow.

Lender and her boyfriend decided to try to have children together, and she decided she needed to come to an understanding about his draw to them and her abhorrence of them. Two years ago she took self-portraits posing with a variety of guns. She then was unsure what the next development for the project was and put it to bed.

When she heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in December, she knew what she needed to do as a next step in her exploration into guns, as well as finish this project.

Heidi Lender visited a gun range for the first time in 2012 with her own targets – portraits of herself.

At the gun range, Lender had to wait 20 minutes before someone could help her. Gunfire was popping all around her. “Anyone at any moment could turn around and shoot anyone and not the target,” she thought to herself.

She watched guns recoil after each bang and worried that she would hit herself in the face.

When the man working at the range had time to help her, he showed her twice how to shoot it, then handed her ear protectors and the loaded Glock 34.

The self-portrait stood in line with the other targets. As she was holding the pistol, looking at herself holding a gun, she thought to herself, “Where do I shoot? Do I shoot for design? Do I shoot my head off?”

Sweating with her finger on the trigger, Lender had to process this existential moment quickly. She sent the first three bullets in a line through her head, neck and stomach. She then splattered the print with shots.

“It was a really heavy experience,” she said, but she liked it. And she had expected to like it.

“Who doesn’t want to shoot a target?” she said “And yet I still can’t stand them.”

Lender and her boyfriend had broken up six months after she took the photographs, and Lender’s opinion of guns didn’t change, though her relationship and project did provide new insights. Her boyfriend had grown up hunting on a farm and didn’t associate firearms with violence like she did.

She gained an appreciation for the mechanics and history of the weapon.

“When I held them I thought wow, these are really beautiful designs,” Lender said.

She wants her personal evolution to be a part of the gun-control conversation, but she isn’t trying to make an absolute statement with her work.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as if guns didn’t exist the world would be a better place,” she said. “There would still be irresponsible people with another weapon.”’

–Lauren Russell, CNN