Zed Nelson’s seminal project Gun Nation - a disturbing reflection on America's deadly love affair with the gun - is widely considered to be the definitive body of work on the subject. The work challenges the myths and cliches that underpin the culture of gun ownership in the United States today.


In Gun Nation Nelson avoids the stereotypical groups that are often conveniently portrayed as the reason behind the “problem”. There are, significantly, no images of gang-members posturing with their weapons, and no fringe-element extremists in camouflage fatigues. Instead, Nelson focuses on the gun industry and their consumers, the nation’s so-called “ordinary, law-abiding” citizens at gun shops and NRA conventions, in living rooms, emergency rooms and schoolyards.

 

These compelling images explore the paradox of why America’s most potent symbol of freedom is also one of its greatest killers - resulting in an annual death toll of almost 30,000 American citizens.

After a decade working as a photojournalist in some of the harshest and most lawless areas of the world, Zed Nelson has had more than the occasional opportunity to witness the devastating effectiveness of man's favourite deadly weapon of choice - the gun. An abstraction to most, the terrifying reality of what guns can do became all too real for Nelson when, whilst documenting the war in Afghanistan in 1994, the car he was travelling in came under heavy machine-gun fire. Nelson's colleague and interpreter were both shot, and suffered horrendous injuries. This brutal reality check brought home the unglamorous reality of firearms, and planted the seeds of the idea that was later to become Gun Nation.

 

Zed Nelson began his study of American gun culture in the wake of a shocking and unusual British gun massacre in Dunblane, Scotland, where 16 children and their teacher were shot to death. While gun-control measures were being debated in Britain, Nelson turned his focus on the United States, a nation where a centuries-old gun culture was clashing with the realities of modern life.

 

Gun Nation has been awarded five major international photography prizes, including the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, (USA); First Prize in World Press Photo Competition and the Visa d’Or (France).

 

 

“In Gun Nation Nelson plays with documentary and ethnographic traditions, having people present themselves before a studio camera, allowing his subjects the chance to present themselves in pose and through verbal statements. The result is disconcerting - images which are not unlike studio-lit family portraits, but these images are loaded with meaning, contradiction and suspense. The subjects adopt defiant poses, hold babies, and clutch deadly weapons - not unlike, say, a turn of the century image of a proud Masai warrior or a Native American Indian with spears and arrows - only in this case the subjects are 21st century Americans, holding semi-automatic weapons and demanding their right to ‘protect’ themselves or their loved ones. As we are lulled by the familiar but deeply unsettling echo of the family album or ethnographic study, Nelson then takes us into hospital emergency rooms and morgues, employing the more immediate language of documentary photojournalism to frame the daily carnage unfolding  in modern-day America, caused - or at least made possible by - the widespread availability of guns.”

 

Don Lenesz

Gun Nation: introduction