Nicolas Lévesque Photographs Gun-Loving Americans
Quebec photographer Nicolas Lévesque spent some time in Kennesaw, Georgia: a quiet city 30 minutes north of Atlanta where every household is required by law to own a firearm and ammunition.
With a population of almost 30,000, Kennesaw is like any other small city in Cobb County, Georgia: friendly, sunny, quiet, and flat. There’s a Walmart, a Starbucks, a Target, and not a whole lot to do. One thing that sets Kennesaw apart from its neighboring towns is that—according to a law passed by Kennesaw City Council in 1982—every household is required to own a gun and ammunition. The ordinance states the gun law is needed to, "protect the safety, security and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants," and for the last three decades, the citizens of Kennesaw have been armed and ready. For what, I’m not sure.
Earlier this year, Quebec photographer Nicolas Lévesque released his short film In Guns We Trust, an elegant and absorbing portrait of Kennesaw gun owners. A mix of photo stills, video, and audio interviews, the film is either a harrowing message about America’s obsession with guns, or a snapshot of a quiet town with downright nice people who happen to nerd out about firearms—depending on what side of the gun debate you fall on. I recently called Lévesque to talk about his experience making his film.
Watch the teaser.
VICE: How did you discover Kennesaw in the first place?
Nicolas: I was reading an article in the Financial Times and it was talking about Kennesaw, Georgia... It said that since 1982, they had a law where everybody who had a household had to own an operating gun and ammunition. I thought that this would be a good photo series, because I wanted to see the daily life of these people.
What were you thinking it would be like going in?
People were trying to warn me, using clichés like, “those people will be crazy,” or “it’s going to be dangerous.” I thought it would be like that the first time, but I didn’t really think about it.
Was it that crazy?
No, but there was a lot of enthusiasm for the guns and gun ownership—a lot of parents teaching their kids about guns, a lot of [gun-centric] events, and a lot of partying around gun ownership. There are a lot of organizations that are pro-gun. I imagined there would be guns everywhere and I imagined people would be afraid of me.
Afraid of what?
Because I’m coming with a camera and a tape recorder, so I thought they would be afraid of speaking to me. I thought people would think of me as unfamiliar or not welcoming. When I wrote to people, gun shops, organizations, or the police, or city councilors... maybe one third of their answers were negative. They didn’t want to see me and they didn’t want to talk about it. But the rest were all motivated people who just thought: “There’s this French Canadian guy coming and now we have a chance to talk about gun ownership.”
It’s funny that everyone thought it would be dangerous, from the looks of things, the town actually seems kind of boring.
You’re right, when you arrive it’s just a boring town. There are shopping malls, big trucks, and big roads. It looked like a lot of towns all across North America. I wasn’t scared at all. You’re always a bit scared when you arrive in a new place and people see you with your photography bags and all that, but you just have to take care of yourself. The Kennesaw downtown is dying and all the local stores are dying and it’s all big Walmarts everywhere and Targets. I just thought it was a very great example of where the world’s going, you know?
For sure. Let’s talk a little bit about the characters you met. What can you tell me about the older, bearded gentleman?
Dent Myers. He’s a very popular guy. When I went into his Civil War surplus store he had a lot of articles written about him by German and American magazines. When journalists go to this town they go to see this guy. Now he’s very old, he’s very tired, and he doesn’t want to see journalists that much—but I was cool with him and he spoke a little bit of French, and that’s why I think he wanted me to come to his place. He had some books in French and he wanted me to translate a couple of things. And his assistant is a young lady—well... about 50 years old—and she was very nice to me. I went there for two or three days just hanging out and looking all over the place because it is filled with old stuff from the Civil War. He was a bright guy; he told me that the civil war was the last honorable war in the world because after that everyone just wanted to make war. He went to Korea and he was saying it was a waste of his time; he wasn’t a very good soldier. But he’s pretty old now and he hasn’t shot a gun in over a year, but he still has four guns on him.
So he’s pro gun?
Yeah he’s super pro gun.
And yet he’s sort of anti-war.
Yeah. Anti-war if it’s not for a good reason. For him, all the wars that are going on right now aren’t for good reasons. He was cool.
Your film doesn’t seem to be explicitly pro or anti-gun. Was that a conscious decision to keep it neutral?
I put myself in the state of a listener, these pro-gun people got to speak about their passion and I gave them a space, but I also feel that the images combined with them talking about it becomes so strong that it can be seen as an anti-gun film. And that’s how I think about it; show things as they are. After I screened the film at TIFF, a pro-gun guy came to see me and said: “I love your film. That’s how it should be.” I didn’t expect that. Then I had other people saying “Kennesaw is a crazy place.” There’s room for both sides. I wanted to present these characters as themselves and to show that they still lead normal lives. I think art is always like that. I never wanted to bring a specific answer.
If you're in Toronto, look out for a screening of In Guns We Trust at the Bell Lightbox on January 7 as part of the Canada's Top Ten Film Festival.
Watch a few videos we did on gun culture: