Twice a year, hundreds of America's most hardcore gun enthusiasts flock to the northern Arizona desert to spend a weekend firing military-grade weapons at pickup trucks, storage containers, and grounded propeller planes. The Big Sandy Shoot bills itself as "the largest machine-gun shoot in the world" and has been taking place for the past nine years between the towns of Wikieup and Kingman, Arizona, near the Big Sandy River. The most dedicated attendees, who bring their own weapons, spend $275 to rent an RV campsite along the quarter-mile-long firing range for the full three-day event; others can test-fire a gun from the range's arsenal of AK-47s, M16s, Tommy guns, Uzis, and tripod-mounted .50-caliber Browning machine guns. Each year, an estimated 3.5 million rounds of ammunition are fired during the event.
Photographer Jean-François Bouchard, the co-founder of the Montreal advertising agency SidLee, is not the kind of person such events generally attract. A self-described liberal, Bouchard had never touched a gun in his life before paying his first visit to the Big Sandy Shoot about three years ago. His previous photography projects examined men in relationships with lifelike sex dolls and the female-to-male transgender community. "My whole artistic endeavor is about documenting lesser-known aspects of society—the fringe or counterculture," Bouchard says.
Like men married to sex dolls, extreme gun enthusiasts are often dismissed as a marginal phenomenon, especially by people from countries like Canada, where military-grade weapons are tightly regulated. "I came to this project with all kinds of assumptions about the people in this culture," Bouchard admits. "That was part of the interest to me, stepping out of my echo chamber and, instead of assuming the worst about people who have different beliefs than me, to just hang out with them."
Bouchard says most of the people he met in Arizona were more than happy to talk with him and allow him to take their portraits. Many of them grew up shooting guns and brought their extended families along to the Big Sandy Shoot. "It's called gun culture for a reason," Bouchard notes. "It's a multigenerational event. It became very clear to me that when you’re born and raised in this culture, gun ownership is the most natural thing in the world." To understand the appeal, Bouchard even shot automatic weapons a few times himself.
When it came to photographing the event, Bouchard decided to focus on the targets—the old cars and trucks that organizers hauled out to the range for participants to blast away at. Something about the bullet-shredded metal trailers and burned-out pickup trucks captured Bouchard's imagination, so he secured permission to photograph the tortured metal carcasses after shooting was finished for the day. Many of the photographs were taken at night, the destroyed vehicles eerily lit by moonlight. Without context, you might think you were looking at the aftermath of a battle in Syria or Afghanistan. Bouchard also took portraits of many of the most zealous participants holding their beloved firearms. The photographs go on exhibition at New York's Arsenal Contemporary gallery in April, and a book of the images will be published the same month.
There's a surreal, theatrical aspect to the photographs that belies the deadliness of the weaponry and the scale of gun violence in the US, where nearly 40,000 people died by gun in 2017—two-thirds by suicide. "The whole affair is influenced by military culture," Bouchard says. "You meet a lot of people wearing military fatigues, and there are a lot of veterans. It's almost like a civic recreation of some aspects of military life. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, it's pure entertainment value."
After immersing himself in America's gun culture, Bouchard says he has a better understanding of why people are so adamantly pro-Second Amendment. "At the end of the day, humans are 99.9 percent alike," he says. "In the case of people who are interested in military-grade weapons, for me the other .1 percent is very disturbing. So I didn't switch my mind to being pro-gun, but I do believe that I understand the pro-gun arguments a little better." As for shooting a machine gun, Bouchard admits the experience left him underwhelmed.
"I thought it was fun for about two minutes," he says. "But maybe that's just because I sucked and couldn't hit the target."