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Shooting Women: Artist Shelley Calton Photographs Ladies with Guns

In her new book, 'Concealed, She’s Got a Gun,' the photographer takes aim on women and their pieces.
August 9, 2015, 3:15pm
Photo courtesy of Shelley Calton

Most photo series of girls with guns show the women half-naked, bending over, or looking like they're trying to swallow weapons whole. Photographer Shelley Calton doesn't play into these stereotypes. In her new photo book, Concealed, She's Got a Gun, she captures women hiding guns under comforters, in handbags, or tightly in their fists as they clutch their sons. Exploring the private lives of female concealed carry license holders in Texas, she examines the tenuous balance their weapons strike between strength and vulnerability. Her exposé normalizes female gun ownership through unnerving photos of more than 30 women with their handguns--visible or not.

"Many purchase handguns for protection, others collect them like they might Wedgwood china or high-heeled shoes," Calton writes in her artist statement. Though Concealed showcases a variety of lethal lone star women, they all have one thing in common: When Calton asks them, "Are you prepared to pull the trigger to protect yourself or your loved ones?" the answer is a resounding yes.

Like any artistic depiction of guns, Calton's work is inherently political, but the photographer pushes back against the assumption that her work is promoting gun rights or regulation. She is simply offering a glimpse into the raw, rural subculture of Texan women who own guns.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Calton about the beauty and significance of shooting women who shoot.

BROADLY: Why did you decide to focus on women and guns as a photographer?
Shelley Calton: A friend of mine was at a hair salon and another woman in the salon dropped her purse, and her handgun went off--discharged--and the bullet ricocheted around the salon, and it almost hit my friend. I saw her just moments after that, and that's what got me interested in photographing women with their guns, initially.

Did you have guns in your house growing up?
The guns were always around. My dad kept a handgun in his nightstand, and then he had other shotguns and rifles for bird hunting, but once I'd moved out of my family home, it wasn't important to me. I don't carry one on my body now, but I do own a handgun that I keep in my house. In the middle of the project, I decided to get my own concealed handgun license. Part of it was for research, and the other part was just to see what it felt like.

Would you say the majority of women in Texas carry guns?
I wouldn't say the majority, but it is pretty common--and I didn't have any trouble finding women that had their licenses. I just started asking within my own circle of friends, and then kind of spread from there. I photographed about 70 women.

You have a pretty diverse group of subjects. Did you do that on purpose?
I hoped to find that, but there ended up being really two different age groups: 30-year-olds and then the next age group I would say was more 50-year-olds. I wanted to get some other nationalities and races, but I didn't really find that. It's mostly Caucasian women who apply for their licenses.

Based on your time with these women, why do you think mostly white women apply for licenses?
I think it's just a cultural thing. Maybe it's more middle-class women.

What's the story behind the blonde gun carrier who was surrounded by dildos and liquor bottles?
She was interesting. She owned a used-car business and car-repossession business, so those are dangerous businesses. (The sex shop was also the same store as the liquor shop.) When I went to her house, she had 15 to 20 guns laid out on her bed for me to photograph. One thing I was surprised about was several of the women did own quite a few guns--like the woman in the gun business. She and her husband are gun dealers.

That's the woman you photographed with her son. Was this just a normal day for her kid?
It was. When I arrived, the little boy was running around with a toy gun that had a laser on it, and then he just ran up and grabbed her leg, so I took the photo--that photo was in the National Portrait Gallery in London. It [was a finalist for] the Taylor Wessing Prize.

Were the guns placed in the areas where the women would typically keep their weapons?
I talked with each of them about where they kept their guns. It was important to get good light, so I did place them, but I would say a good percentage of them keep their guns by their bed, like the girl with the gun between the mattress. She told me that, in case she had an intruder in the night, she had her gun there so [the weapon] would be easy to reach.

Did you ever feel uncomfortable while you were doing the project?
No. For one, I always made sure, prior to arriving at their house, I would ask them to unload their gun. And once I arrived there, I always checked their guns to make sure there were no clips in there. When I initially started the project, I thought I would be just photographing a subculture of women in Texas that had decided to own handguns for protection. But it has become a lot more than that. There are bigger questions than just why they have decided to own a handgun: What are the reasons behind that? Because they don't feel safe in their own homes, or are the police [failing at] protecting [women]?

Did most of the women get their concealed carry licenses because they were afraid of men intruding into their homes?
I think typically it is men who commit crimes against women, but there are all different reasons--some actually had incidents, some had just been threatened. And the other thing that I found, which I thought was important, was that a lot of them grew up with guns and a lot of times the guns were handed down from generation to generation. This is one way that they may acquire guns. What are you gonna do with a gun that's handed down to you? A lot of times you learn to shoot it, and then it becomes part of your life.