Not long after news broke of the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, Gabriele Galimberti’s photos started appearing on my social-media feeds. The first one I saw was of a family of four on their back deck, with one child on a tricycle. They are surrounded by more than 100 firearms (long rifles, as well as dozens of handguns and semi-automatic rifles with scopes), each one intricately laid out in a proud display. There are so many guns that it looks as if the deck is made of weapons. There are so many guns that, in order to fit the family’s longer rifles in the frame, they had to be laid out on the roof of the house. It is a jarring portrait, due to the amount of weaponry but also to the casual posing of the family. It is shocking to imagine this amount of firepower in one household, and yet the photo suggests that there’s something very banal about this level of gun ownership in America.
The photo is one of a series of 40 portraits that Galimberti, an Italian photographer, took of U.S. firearm owners posing with their guns. This two-year-long project—for which he won the World Press Photo Contest in 2021—culminated in an amazing book, The Ameriguns, in which Galimberti interviews his subjects in an attempt to analyze why firearms are so deeply ingrained in American culture. The book, which also examines the history of the Second Amendment, is a holistic and bracing look at the United States’ complicated history of gun ownership. Galimberti organized the book into four sections: freedom, family, passion, and style. He believes those are “the four big values that keep Americans so attached to guns.”
Over the weekend, I watched as Galimberti’s photos were posted and reposted in Twitter threads, often without attribution to him or his work. Each thread racked up hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets. As you might expect, the comments were often angry, denouncing those in the photos as disgusting and sick, or equating them with the kind of mass-shooting violence we’ve seen recently in Buffalo and Uvalde. These threads seemed at odds with the spirit of Galimberti’s project. I reached out and spoke with him on Tuesday about the origins of his project, what he learned about the United States’ gun culture from traveling the country and spending time with proud, intensely devoted firearm owners in their homes, and what it’s like to have his work go viral during a time of profound tragedy.
This conversation has been edited for clarity. All photos have been shared with Galimberti’s permission.
Charlie Warzel: In the past few days, I’ve seen your “Ameriguns” portraits everywhere. Often, they’re posted without attribution, which is awful and I’m sure quite frustrating for you. How does it feel to see this work, which is now a few years old, go viral?
Gabriele Galimberti: It’s weird and perverse how I’m getting so much attention after such a big tragedy. I don’t know how to feel.
Warzel: On one hand, it must be quite validating that your work is having such an effect on people. When I first saw some of the portraits, they stopped me in my tracks. I was really unsettled by some of the images, not only because of the weapons, but because they depicted people, who, despite living in the same country as me, seemed to be so deeply enmeshed in a culture that is so different from mine. The photos are an immediate, visceral reminder of the intensity and devotion of gun culture in the U.S. But on the other hand, it feels like your work is being used by others to fuel a lot of anger and frustration. There are a lot of people stealing your work to use it to fight an online culture war during a really difficult moment in America, and that feels like it’s not quite in the spirit of your project. How do you feel about the success of the work?
Galimberti: The success of my photos at the moment is because my photos are really easy to understand. You don’t need to be an expert in photography or even guns to understand the message. It’s impossible to look at these images and not see what’s there. And that makes my photos so easy to share and to be used for a certain, sometimes negative, communication. But I think when people use my photos to judge the people in them, that is a mistake. The real judgment in my work is on the society that allows this. The real problem isn’t these 40 people I photographed; it is the regulations and the culture that permits it.
When you look at the last two mass shootings, it is absurd that kids celebrating their 18th birthday can go buy guns but couldn’t go to a bar and drink. It’s probably far too easy to buy guns in this country. The focus should be on the regulation and not on these people. These people I photographed are buying guns because they can and are free to do so. And so if you are shocked by seeing this family with 200 guns, then maybe the real problem is there are no regulations that would keep them from obtaining these guns. And I want to be clear that it’s not only guns I photographed, but also people with bazookas and flamethrowers, all legally obtained. They’re free to buy them.
I’d never shot a gun before three years ago. But doing this project I was offered and shot many guns, and I have to be honest and say that sometimes it was very fun. I can understand the attraction to guns. I can understand why, as a human, you can be attracted to certain objects even if they are dangerous. The problem is not the attraction. It’s about the regulation. The problem is when a shooting like the one in Texas happens, the culture argues about giving guns to teachers instead of regulating them. It’s weird and perverse.
Warzel: I think your work is touching that very raw nerve in American culture and politics right now. There is a group of people seeing these photos of people posing proudly with a militia’s worth of tactical firepower and asking, How on earth do we allow this, legally?
Galimberti: You know, it’s odd—I’m getting hundreds of requests to talk about my work in the aftermath of this mass shooting, but they are all international. You are one of the few requests from the USA.
Warzel: Why do you think that is?
Galimberti: I think the topic is somehow untouchable for you all in the U.S. It is so dividing. I’ve had two different reactions when I show my work in the USA. Some people see it as glorifying gun culture. I now get so many requests from gun owners who say, “I have so many more guns than the people in your book; you should photograph me!” On the other side, there is an intense reaction from people who are disturbed by this, and they do not want to see these photos because they are troubled by them.