arts

Alice Schoolcraft shows middle America through the eyes of a Swede

Published 19th August 2019
Credit: Courtesy Alice Schoolcraft
Alice Schoolcraft shows middle America through the eyes of a Swede
Written by Ananda Pellerin, CNN
Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft would like you to put aside your personal opinion about guns when you view photos of her extended American family.
She knows the images will be polarizing, especially after two deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
"I grew up in Europe, in Scandinavia, so I'm not comfortable around guns -- it's just not been my life," said the 25-year-old photographer in a phone interview.
"But I wasn't there to tell a preconceived story, I was just curious to see this other side of the family that I really had no idea about. I had kind of an outsider's perspective. But at the same time, because they were family, I had this connection."
Schoolcraft took the images in 2015 and 2016, during multiple visits to a town in Washington State, which she doesn't name for privacy reasons. They showed unguarded, everyday images of her distant relatives -- her father's cousin, Myles, his wife and their two children -- who live a very different life to her own.
A Swede who has spent time living in Denmark and Spain, Schoolcraft is more accustomed to life in the city, in countries where firearms are tightly controlled. Before visiting her American family, she had never held a gun.
"I wanted to present this side of my family as honestly as possible," she said. "It's so easy to pre-judge people, but I think you can see in the photos that they are loving and warm."
Staying in a trailer behind the family home, she threw herself into getting to know these gun-loving relatives, and capturing their almost entirely self-sufficient existence. The resulting series has just been published as a book titled "Schoolcraft."
Schoolcraft hasn't captioned the photos in the book, in order to allow the viewer the freedom to interpret them on their own.
Schoolcraft hasn't captioned the photos in the book, in order to allow the viewer the freedom to interpret them on their own. Credit: Courtesy Alice Schoolcraft
Five years before the project stared, Myles visited Sweden. "I found him fascinating," Schoolcraft said. "He made all these weird noises to attract birds in the yard, he ate ribs, he showed me his whole gun collection on his phone. He said, 'this gun, this one's perfect for you.' And I thought, I've never held a gun. I've never even heard a gun. How could he say I have a perfect gun?"
During one of her first trips, her American relatives took her to a firing range to practice shooting. "It was pretty crazy. But I had to do what they did and live their life to get these intimate photos," she said.
Courtesy Alice Schoolcraft
Though she abstained from any kind of animal slaughter, Schoolcraft followed the family of four on hunting trips and observed as they killed and prepared poultry and rabbits. One of the more arresting images in the series shows a quail about to get its head cut off by a pair of shears -- a bird Schoolcraft recalls they ate only half an hour after the kill.
Courtesy Alice Schoolcraft
"The guns and the knives are directly connected to their subsistence," she explained. "It was something I didn't clock before I got there. They've created their own ecosystem. They hunt and keep animals to eat. They make their own bullets."
Many of the photos track the ebb and flow of family life -- baking, blowing bubbles in the yard, dressing-up the pet dog -- as well as the lush, mountainous region where the Schoolcrafts live. But there is a strong, unavoidable emphasis on her relatives' weapon collections, and the role guns play in their lives goes far back.
Courtesy Alice Schoolcraft
"Myles started hunting when he was young, and served as Military Police in the US Army," Schoolcraft said. "He spent time in the former Yugoslavia and in the second Iraq War and was stationed on the DMZ in Korea. I don't think the military increased his interest in collecting or using guns, but I do think being in war zones had an impact on him wanting to keep his family safe."
One photo shows Myles prone on the ground in full 3-D camouflage, poised with a rifle, behind a tree stump. "What he's wearing is called a ghillie suit, which he made himself to go hunting in," Schoolcraft said. "It probably took him a month to make, and I even got to try it on. It was not as cool on me as it was on him."
Another photo shows Myles's daughter indoors on a ladder holding a handgun, a piece from her personal collection.
Courtesy Alice Schoolcraft
"I saw a lot of myself in her," Schoolcraft said. "We look quite similar and at one point while watching her shooting, I thought, that could have been me."
Schoolcraft said her images are not meant to be a piece of political commentary, rather a personal insight into the life of one family in America.
However, she said the experience had not changed her own beliefs about gun ownership.
"I feel more safe when access to guns are controlled in society," she said.
"Schoolcraft" by Alice Schoolcraft, published by Bemojake, is out now.