The photos that emerged in the hours following the massacre at the office holiday party in San Bernardino, California, were unique to their setting — warm sun, palm trees, short sleeves even in December — yet also terribly familiar. The phalanxes of cops, some in combat gear. The confused and scared survivors, some holding hands, making their way to safety.
That night, writer Alice Gregory wrestled with what it means for a country when such extraordinary scenes become so routine. Yesterday — 17 months later, but just eight miles away — San Bernardino was rocked by another shooting that sent the news trucks into motion: Three dead, including an 8-year-old special needs student, in a domestic murder suicide that played out in an elementary school classroom. The familiar images filled our screens again, bringing a renewed urgency to Alice’s essay, which we are republishing here.
Mass shootings are a public health epidemic whose ubiquity has begun to produce its own aesthetic. Familiar photographic subgenres — the candlelight vigil; the sobbing, solitary onlooker; the press conference; the phalanx of first responders — adhere to certain accidental compositional conventions: eye contact from subjects is rare, light sources are discrete, the perspective is seldom anything but straight-on.
The least lurid, most haunting images are the ones that show near-victims being ushered out of harm’s way. Sometimes there is peripheral gore but not often; sometimes the subjects are terrified, or weeping, but more often they are catatonic with shock. As Americans we have become connoisseurs of these pictures; we hardly need to be supplied with captions to be able to interpret them accurately. You could give a moderately well-informed person a minimalist photograph from the aftermath of a mass shooting — some caution tape remains, but no flowers have been left yet — and they’d immediately know that someone with a semi-automatic weapon has stormed into a public space and shot indiscriminately. It wouldn’t even occur to the viewer that the photograph might have been taken in the minutes following a car crash or other calamity. Though reminiscent of far-off war zones, the details give them away as homegrown. These photographs have become as legible to us as prom pictures.
Aftermath photos have the effect of exaggerating the banality of their scenery. Pine trees, asphalt, vinyl siding all begin to take on an outraging eeriness. There are totems of kindness, too, but they only make the full compositions more wrenching. A towel is deployed as a makeshift blanket as a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood employee escorts a terrified young women between a cop car and a hummer. She wears her work ID on a lanyard around her neck, like an amulet. A policeman directs them — and a dense procession of others — through the falling snow out of the frame.
A decade and a half earlier and less than an hour’s drive north, Columbine High School students were photographed sprinting across a campus parking lot, fleeing armed classmates. A policemen in squad gear convoys them out of imminent danger.
Behind a gleaming white police car, siren flashing, nine female students from Oregon’s Umpqua Community College walk forward with their hands up. The glint of one’s bellybutton ring is barely visible; she looks directly at the camera, stricken.
That was in October — the one after the one on live morning TV, but before the one at the clinic. Then, yesterday: San Bernardino. A cop lifts a taut horizontal line of caution tape as eight women calmly make their way out of an empty school bus and under the familiar yellow tape, the first lifting her arms toward it, heavenward. Their shadows are long and fall parallel to the yellow plastic.
Though many of these photographs are closely cropped, small areas of desolation appear at the margins. We can’t help but mentally extrapolate them and soon we realize that these people are just standing out in the open. The vastness of the empty space becomes terrifying; anything could be out there. It’s most obvious in the image from the theater shooting in July in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is symmetrically composed and lit like a Gregory Crewdson photograph. The sky is black; the cars in the parking lot are spotted with glare; small clusters of people confer. The worst is over, but menace still infuses the air.
Unlike other photographs of mass shootings, these ones are not about the machinery of government or the chaos of a first response or the grief of average citizens. They’re very clearly about survivors. And it’s easier to identify with the survivors of mass shootings than with the victims, if only because we are all inclined to imagine ourselves making it out of one alive. We picture them, which is to say us, in the minutes before their exodus, hiding, turning off cell phone ringers, texting family members, working hard not to die.
[Photo credits, from top: Valerie Gratias, Twitter; REDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images; Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images; Mark Leffingwell/AFP/Getty Images; Michael Sullivan/The News-Review via AP; David McNew/Getty Images; Leslie Westbrook/The Baton Rouge Advocate]