How Do You Document Something As Unimaginable as a School Shooting?

In the weeks and months after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which took the lives of 20 students between the ages of 6 and 7 and of six adults on the staff, the residents of Newtown, Connecticut, were flooded with thousands of physical expressions of condolence from the public. Many of them were addressed to the whole town. They were delivered to the Newtown Municipal Center and from there to a nearby airplane hangar, where bins overflowed with flowers, quilts, drawings, banners, postcards, and letters from around the world.

Strangers sent sympathy notes, candles, crosses, and statues of Jesus; they made paintings of the children who had been killed; cumulatively, they mailed more than 65,000 stuffed animals, more than twice the population of Newtown. It was too much, and never enough. What are the parents of a murdered first-grader to do with a thousand teddy bears?

After learning that the city planned to incinerate the vast majority of these condolences, creating a cremated “sacred soil” from the ashes of the gifts, Yulie Moreno, a local amateur photographer, took it upon herself to document every item. She assembled a team of fellow volunteers to help, ultimately making a website,“Embracing Newtown,” which aimed to preserve the outpouring of sympathy as much as it did to honor the lives lost. “There’s all of this stuff, and you feel responsible to let people know it was touched, it was looked at, it was opened, you know?” Moreno told the artist Andres Gonzalez in one of the interviews included in American Origami, his solemn, disquieting photo and text exploration of mass school shootings in the United States.

Only weeks before the Sandy Hook massacre, Gonzalez had returned to the United States after seven years of living and working abroad. Coming home, he had intended to find a new project that would center on American culture; he imagined it might even take a celebratory tone. The reports of the shootings hit him with a particularly devastating jolt. As he found he couldn’t look away from the news, he began to research the subject, tasking himself with finding a way to present the story of mass school shootings to a country that has become numbingly familiar with them.

With American Origami, Gonzalez has also assembled what is essentially a record of mourning. But where Moreno (the amateur photographer of the Newtown memorials) was driven by the impulse to document emotion, Gonzalez is interested in how the aftermath of these shootings—the shock, loss, and grief they cause—embeds itself in the school and the community. Starting with Columbine in 1999 and concluding with Parkland in 2018, Gonzalez focuses on the long-term consequences of seven separate mass school shootings that have occurred in America over the last two decades and provides an affecting yet unsentimental exploration of a uniquely American epidemic. Most notably, and rare for contemporary photo books, American Origami devotes nearly as much space to its text as it does to Gonzalez’s own images. Interviews with survivors and community members as well as the inclusion of archival documents represent a significant portion of the book. Acknowledging the weight of words is a risk a more purist photographer wouldn’t take, and the book speaks nobly to a willingness to subvert artistic ego for the sake of a story.

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