Continuing our season of themed content exploring National Identity, Megan Wilson-De La Mare interviews Daniel George.
Interview by Megan Wilson-De La Mare –
Daniel George is an artist and educator at Brigham Young University, currently residing in Vineyard, UT. Daniel creates work while living on location as a way of understanding the local community. His recent series, Trigger trash, is a photographic record of items left behind at shooting sites, exploring American gun culture through the target shooting on public land in Eastern Idaho. I interviewed him on his thoughts behind creating the work and exploring such a challenging topic.
Megan Wilson-De La Mare: Firstly, I’m curious about your process in photographing the objects. I’m guessing you collected them from sites to photograph in a studio environment. Could you tell us a bit more about this? Obviously these are very emotive objects, did you feel any responsibility over where you found them, or was it simply collecting trash as a record to dispose of?
Daniel George: I collected these things over a period of time while working on a closely related project, Nobody Wanted, which looks at the land that is effected by, and the individuals participating in, target shooting. So, I was regularly visiting a dozen or so sites on public land that were popular with local gun owners. I remember seeing a couple of objects that intrigued me that felt like beautiful ready-made’s but at the same time, brutal and ugly in their violence and degradation of the environment they represented. My intention was to create a record of these visually interesting artefacts. I did feel my practice was beneficial to the land but I didn’t feel solely responsible for the cleanup of these places. I recognised that even if I wasn’t contributing directly, through the process of sifting and looking to make art I was still to a degree profiting from it. Locals would regularly organise large-scale efforts where they would haul out tons of trash. I made a practice of disposing of everything I picked up. So, if I grabbed a beer can because I thought it would make a good photograph, and it turned out to not be that interesting, I would take it with me anyway.
MW-DLM: Gun culture is such a big part of America and a rife political topic, in Trigger Trash and some of your other projects there’s a distance and detachment from the subject, the work feels very matter of fact and observational. What were your motives and thoughts behind the project?
DG: My style of photography is mostly observational, I spend a lot of time examining the everyday. I think that the menial can hold a lot of cultural significance, but I don’t like to be led by objectivity because I know it is not completely possible. To begin with I was hesitant to take on a project with such a divisive, political topic. I usually try to unite people with my work. Because of photography’s lack of bias and ability to create a wide range of responses, using a matter-of-fact style in this project played to my advantage. I want the work to create conversations, not end them and alienate those who may or may not sympathise with gun ownership. For this I have to hold a neutral stance with the work. With Trigger Trash, my focus is very much centred on the violence associated with guns. They were made to kill, and that is an unbiased fact. Whether you are for guns, against them, or somewhere in-between, this sort of destruction needs to be addressed.
MW-DLM: You mentioned you had some hesitations in starting the project. What eventually interested you to make the work on gun culture?
DG: For me, a creative impulse is like an incessant itch that can’t be ignored. It has to be scratched, so I lost the battle with myself and my reservations. I jumped right into making the work before thinking too much about the complexity of the conversation that I would have to eventually navigate. I started creating simple landscape images of shooting sites that were littered with discarded targets (these were the same places where I would later collect items for Trigger Trash). A couple days after making some of those, I started approaching people about taking their portraits holding their guns. It was important for me to talk with these individuals because I was an outsider looking in, and I wanted to understand the range of opinions on the topic. I was nervous that they wouldn’t talk to me, but for the most part they were all very open and accommodating. I felt that their perspective helped me make more informed decisions with the project—in regards to tone and representation.
MW-DLM: The typology style you’ve adopted through the series works well to create the impartial view you mentioned. Did you experiment much with different methods before deciding to photograph the objects in this way?
DG: There was a slight evolution to the visual style. In the beginning, when I first started paying close attention to individual objects in the landscape, I photographed them as I found them—in the dirt, on a rock, strewn in the sagebrush, etc. But those photos never felt fully resolved. I was attempting a sort of typology, but there was too much variety for my liking. I knew that I needed to exert more control. I made the decision to bring them into a studio so I could have more continuity in lighting and framing. Also, the use of a simple background appealed to me because it placed greater emphasis on the distinct quality of each object. The problem I faced was the sterile look of a photo studio. I didn’t want the items to feel totally removed from the landscape. That was an important part of their context. So, I painted backdrops with colours I sampled from out in the desert where everything was found. This felt right.
MW-DLM: You mentioned that you made the work to create a conversation. Since finishing the series what kind of responses have you received from those in the community you worked with?
DG: I was fortunate to have a couple shows in Idaho that highlighted this work—at a local university and a museum. Within that community, the focus was more on the environment and the negative effect of target shooting on public land. In fact, this was the main conversation I had with my portrait subjects. Their concern was that irresponsible shooting practices were ruining the landscape. During this time, I was also in contact with the Bureau of Land Management, who oversee those areas where I was photographing, they were interested in using my work as a sort of public service announcement—urging people to clean up after themselves. No one really brought up gun control, mass shootings, or anything related. Maybe because guns are much more commonplace there. But this is definitely the main focus outside of rural communities. Later this year, I am going to be exhibiting some of this work in a group show that will function as a larger survey of gun culture in America. This is going to take place at a university in Dayton, OH, where in 2019 a mass shooting claimed the lives of 9 individuals, and left 27 more injured.
MW-DLM: Have you had any more ideas or plans for the future to continue the work on gun culture?
DG: No, I think I’m done with it. And I have already moved on to other things. That project was an important one to embark on at a certain point in my life when I was living within the community that the work concerns. My overall interest is to use photography to explore the connection of place and culture, and I think the best way to do this is to be a local. It helps to speak the language and understand where people are coming from. I think that being a part of the everyday helps work feel more informed and nuanced.
Daniel George’s series Trigger Trash features alongside words by Tom Mauser in our latest issue of Loupe National Identity Issue 10. You can pick up a free copy from one of over 90 stockists across the country. Single copies, back issues and annual subscriptions are also available to purchase from our online store.
Megan Wilson-De La Mare is a portrait and landscape photographer based in the South-West. You can follow her work at www.meganwilson-delamare.com.