On October 25, Time magazine released a special report coinciding with its November 5 issue, along with a cover image featuring 245 individual people that reportedly took five months and hundreds of photo shoots to create. And since the topic was gun control in America—and the people featured are activists, gun owners, legislators, ER staff and gunshot victims—we’d wager that it also involved a considerable number of challenging conversations, too.
Or maybe not. The photographer, who goes only by JR and is known for his hot-topic photos that pop up as street art and in galleries, was fairly unfamiliar with the issue of gun control in the U.S.—he is French. On CBS This Morning, he spoke about his travels to St. Louis, Washington D.C. and Dallas to create the many portraits that make up his photomontage and the testimonials that run alongside it. He admitted that this was new territory for him. “In France, where I come from, we don’t have guns like that,” he said. “I was always curious seeing this through the news, seeing these mass shootings, how did that happen? But I’m also really naive about it. So I went and asked the people themselves and asked them to tell me their story and I haven’t changed a word from it.”
This isn’t the first time the publication has tackled gun control, or had an artist weigh in on it. As editor in chief Edward Felsenthal writes in his cover story, in 1968, Roy Lichtenstein was commissioned to create an image for the magazine to mark the string of assassinations the country had recently witnessed, and his resulting work, The Gun in America, now hangs in D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery. JR’s photo is also getting the institutional treatment—an interactive version of it is currently on view at Pace Gallery in New York City, and Time is reportedly soliciting locations around the country for it to be hosted as a projection, along with public talks.
But Lichtenstein is one of America’s most beloved artists. JR is, in a sense, an outsider. And yet, though this might seem like something akin to having a man pen a major essay explaining the #MeToo movement, having this perspective here serves an important purpose.
I grew up partly in Australia, where it’s well known that a 1996 mass shooting led to restrictive firearm laws that drastically reduced the country’s gun-related deaths. So in my mind, the steps that the U.S. should take are quite clear. But my childhood was also split between the U.S., where I live now, and on my many trips back to Australia, I’ve grown pretty tired of the deriding and eye-rolling from others commenting on this American problem. So much so that I’ve often found myself making the case for how complex it is, and that suggesting a simple solution completely misunderstands the issue. Point being: I’ve always felt like I could see the topic of “guns in America” from the inside as well as the outside.
That’s where the Time image, and the fact it was not made by an American, accomplishes some things it otherwise couldn’t. It turns us into a collective, one where we may not agree with those with differing opinions, but where we see the scope of people the debate over gun ownership affects. And it also reminds us that, as much as the jokes and sneers from outsiders rankle, we also have the eyes of the world trained on us. We have a pretty big, messy problem to deal with that others are paying close attention to.