Newtown shooting inspires anti-violence portraits

Newtown shooting inspires anti-violence portraits

Laura Casey

Photos by Anne Kohler.

While recovering from the shock of what happened in the community of Newton, Conn. after a troubled young man killed 20 first grade students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in mid-December, Alameda photographer Anne Kohler posed a question to her Facebook friends: “If you could describe, in one word, what we lost in Newtown, Conn. what would that word be?”

Childhood. Wishes. Hope. Future. Everything.

More than 48 friends posted words on her page, words Kohler then used for her “The Things We Lost: In Memory of Newtown, Conn.” photo essay being shown at Frank Bette Center for the Arts starting March 8. The show features 27 photos, 20 of students who are in first through third grades and six of educators. The photos are stark black and white portraits with the words Kohler gathered marked in thick black ink on the models’ bodies or on paper. The models represent the number people killed at Sandy Hook and the crowning 27th photo is of a mother and her daughter with the word “Support” printed on her arm.

“I wanted to make something that wasn’t offensive to the people who lost their kids but said ‘This is what you stand to lose if we don’t make changes,’” she said.

Kohler, who has a son in first grade and a daughter in third, reacted like many people in the U.S. when they heard 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way through the elementary school’s security system and executed 20 six- and seven-year-olds carrying a variety of his murdered mother's handguns and a Bushmaster XM15-E2S assault rifle. She cried. She got sick. She felt the heaviness of deep sadness over the loss of so many young people and the educators who tried desperately to stop the massacre.

“Immediately (I) started to envision the kids and what it would look like to walk into a first grade classroom and see a bunch of dead kids,” she said. “I imagined what the fear was like for them when they went through that. I felt like I wanted to do something but I wasn’t sure what to do.”

The killings also led her to get into a series of debates with conservative friends and family members about gun control. They made her furious. Kohler often shoots a weapon for fun when she visits her hometown in the South and she believes in universal background checks, licenses and other regulations for owning firearms in the United States.

“We don’t need assault rifles and we don’t need 30-round magazines,” she said. She also wants people who are mentally ill to have better access to health care, a problem she sees as more daunting than the gun debate. She also doesn’t let her children watch violent movies or TV or let them play violent video games.

“The Things We Lost” is Kohler’s way of being politically active in the best way she knows how, by telling a story through images that she said she hopes make an impact. All the photos are hosted on One Million Moms for Gun Control and she has made packets to send to politicians like Senator Dianne Feinstein and former Arizona representative and gun violence victim Gabrielle Giffords, who are both vocal lawmakers who support gun control. Her work, she said, is also helping her heal from the tragedy.

Since her children go to elementary school in Alameda, she has access to several students around the age of those who were killed as well as their teachers and educators. Most of the time she let the kids and teachers pick the word used in their portraits from that original list. The models, like third-grade teacher Erin Kelley-Smith, gladly participated in the project.

Kelley-Smith was most affected by a Newtown Bee photo of kids being led across a parking lot in typical fire drill positions. One, a girl with long brown hair and a turquoise shirt, is frozen in an open-mouthed, terrified cry.

“We do ‘lockdown’ drills and fire drills, earthquake drills,” she said. “One never really expects to have to do one of them for real.”

She thought of her own school family — the students and educators — and was stunned to the point of tears.

“The word I chose (for the portrait) was ‘optimism’ because I am a teacher and the day this happened I felt no optimism,” she said.

Kohler, who also photographs weddings, family portraits and other commercial subjects, said “The Things We Lost” is intended to inspire discussion about the key questions surrounding why the massacre at Sandy Hook happened. Did it happen because there are too many guns in the U.S. and too few laws regulating them? Do we need to address health care to better identify and treat people with severe mental health needs and mental illness? Are violent video games and films contributing to an increasingly violent culture?

“I feel like it’s kind of hard to act and to make a difference and participate in debates so this is my way,” she said.

“The Things We Lost: In Memory of Newton, Conn.” will be on display from March 8 to March 30 at Frank Bette Center for the Arts, 1601 Paru Street. An opening gala will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. March 8. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Access to the gallery and the opening gala are free but donations are appreciated.