Young Americans by Sharif Hamza, a British photographer living in New York, documents an array of American teenagers who practice firing guns for sport. It’s a series that is equally eye-opening and difficult to look at and, in turn, it divides opinion. “Every step of the way,” he tells It’s Nice That, “there has been an internal conflict.”
However, Sharif doesn’t agree with the idea that people can be prejudged without prior knowledge. “I have this thing as a photographer that everyone deserves a good picture and to be photographed in an honest way," he says. “I wanted to do that with these people.” And so, despite questioning his own moral stance, Young Americans, a journey through the country’s states, laws, families, schools and opinions, began.
The first time Sharif was introduced to the cultural use of guns came a few years back. While on a road trip with his wife Ashley and two other friends, he stopped off in a small town on the border between Arizona, a state with some of the least restrictive gun laws in the US, and Nevada, where the open carry law is enacted.
Their neighbours were a gun-owning family who asked them to go shooting. In the group was their eight-year-old son. “He never missed,” says Sharif. In that moment, the photographer realised that this father and son bonding experience was an “instinctively American way of parenting”.
Growing up in the UK, it was a relationship to firearms unlike anything he’d experienced before. Gun culture, it turned out, even seeped into the American scholastic system. “Kids would either compete within separate gun academies or they would have a school team. A lot go on to compete at the Olympics or gain a scholarship to go to a large American university,” Sharif says. “They can also get sponsorship and earn money from a fairly young age. Ultimately, it’s just kind of a natural, everyday, mainstream activity in this country.”
As you can imagine, getting parental agreement and access to subjects to photograph proved tricky. Sharif and Ashley would write to sporting associations, but without the support of a publication, they were mostly ignored. Eventually, one family agreed to participate. Once the first set of images — sincere and unposed photographs— were seen by others, they agreed too. “The pictures weren’t sensationalist,” Sharif says, “and they didn’t have news angle to them.” Families then began to introduce Sharif to other participants at competitions and events. “After a while, we became part of the furniture.”
However Sharif “stuck out like a sore thumb," within this community, being “that brown English guy with a very big, clunky camera, always loading film." he describes. "At some points, people would just come up to me and my wife and say ‘Hey, we’ve heard what you’re doing, my son is over there and we’d love it if you took his picture’. That would be nice because we’d then be introduced to another teen, another school. A month later we’d go there and meet their family.”
It was then that Young Americans began to spiral. Sharif crossed America’s vast expanse in an attempt to tell the most diverse story possible. “Sometimes, if we saw a team, or if we discovered there was an African-American or Asian member of the team, we would go out of our way to take the picture.”
When it came down to taking each photograph, Sharif implemented rules to create a cohesive project, but also to convey the tone he wanted from the start. The first was that his subjects “always had to carry their gun, or something related to what they do,” and he’d never dream of posing his subjects. Instead, the photographer asked them to “just hold their guns in whatever was the most natural way”.
There’s a disquieting amount of smiling going on in Young Americans. His subjects, grinning away with guns in their hands, look like they’re posing for high school yearbooks. This was, he stresses, never something Sharif asked for directly. It was parents who often got their children to bare teeth, and as he was attempting to make the process, and the photos, as natural as possible, he left them to it. “That was kind of it. I wanted to do it in a way that didn’t tamper with the situation.”
The more photos he took, the clearer the moral complications of the project became. “It is,” he says, “a strange visual and moral juxtaposition to see a 14-year-old girl shoot a gun.” However, despite repeat exposure to a society in which gun ownership can seem the norm, his views on the subject are the same now as they were before he set about turning Young Americans into a reality.
“I like the idea of living in a country with no guns," he explains. “I don’t really, or never really, saw any purpose in private citizens owning guns especially, and that the sole purpose of a gun is to hurt someone else. During the project that opinion didn’t change.”
However, having met so many owners in recent years, Sharif is sanguine when it comes to accepting that Americans aren’t going to go give up their guns. Gun ownership in the States equals 1.5 per person, leading Sharif to feel “more comfortable with the idea that if someone is going to handle a gun they’ve had extensive training, done safety and discipline from a young age, been instructed by their parents and by teachers on how to respect what they do, and how to respect other people around them,” he says. "It sounds strange,” he says, “but that’s the safest environment to have an abundance of firearms around you.”
Guns, in his experience, can, in their own odd way, bring families together too. At events, in conversations with parents of boys, the chat always followed the same pattern, it was just like “talking to the father of any young boy who was good at football or basketball,” Sharif explains.
With the girls, however, it was entirely different. The conversation would often begin with how their daughter was having self-esteem issues and difficulties at school, “touching on social issues, or her level of confidence. A lot of that would boil down to that particular girl possibly not having found something she excels at,” he continues. Parents would say “we tried tennis, ballet, singing camp, stuff like that,” before their daughter had a go at shooting, “and it felt natural,” Sharif tells us. “Now she owns a gun, she’s in the top five in her town or state. She feels great and it has transformed her personality in however many months. It’s trickled down into everything that she does. She’s a different person to the girl they knew before she started shooting.”
As a father to two daughters, this particularly struck Sharif. “Hearing a story like that makes me feel great,” he says. “I certainly want my daughters to have high levels of self-esteem and pride in what they do. When you hear a story like that, and you do hear them quite often, then it’s kind of hard to justify the reason why they can’t do that. Although it’s a little disconcerting that the instrument to make all of that happen is a gun.”
It’s also worth highlighting the risk subjects featured have taken in representing their culture. It’s been a process they feel proud of, but it’s also been a strain. “They’ve done something so brave,” explains Sharif. “As a 16-year-old, to go out there and say you know what, this controversial thing, I’m going to put my face to it and say I own this. Not many adults could do that. I think they’re the bravest kids I’ve met. They believe in it, they don’t believe it’s wrong, and they don’t connect the wrongdoings with what they’re doing.”
Since the project drew to a close, Sharif’s released the resulting photographs gradually, watching them polarise audiences. He’s shown them to people “who really love them, who say they’ve never seen anything like it”. But on the other hand, “there are people who I’ve shown them to and they can’t look at them,” he continues. “They look at two, close the box and say this isn’t for me. I find those two reactions to be interesting. I know I’ve taken photographs that provoke thought.”Young Americans will always — for those reading this article now or viewing the images in years to come — be connected to the conversation around gun control in the States. While Sharifs photographed the project from an artistic perspective, he admits that his chosen focus “is undeniably a political subject at a political time”. Its political context is unavoidable, but Sharif’s aim of photographing a cross-section of American teenagers has been achieved in his unbiased angle.
“I didn’t orchestrate this,” Sharif says as our conversation draws to a close. “I haven’t created these pictures out of thin air. This is all happening. I’m not trying to say it’s right or it’s wrong. I’m just trying to say we live in a country and this is happening.”