In the rural parts of the United States how can you tell how old the road signs are? You count the number of bullet holes, the more holes the older the sign.
I’ve been a landscape photographer for about 20 years. In the course of pursuing that work I’ve driven countless miles on rural roads all across America. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing the beauty that driving the roads of America has to offer including spectacular mountains, vast forests, endless lakes, and other-worldly geological features. I’ve also seen lots and lots of road signs with bullet holes.
I never used to give them much thought, I was either blinded by my obsession with finding some great vista that I ignored such small details as the condition of road signs. Or I was given pause by other common distractions, like roadside memorials, which have become another photographic series of mine.
My appreciation, (for lack of a better word), of bullet riddled road signs changed during a photo trip in Utah. In the course of my work I often drive down almost every road I come across in a region if it seems like it might offer an interesting vantage point. With this in mind I turned down a dirt road heading to the shore of Utah Lake. As I drove this road I couldn’t help but notice all the spent shotgun shells and occasional bullet casings strewn about. There were a lot of them. This is not an uncommon sight on Bureau of Land Management land, owned by the American people and free for them to use with little restriction. It’s common for people to use BLM land to target shoot. Therefore I was not all that surprised by the occasional gunshot I heard as I drove this road.
The road ended at the shore and there was an area with scattered picnic tables. I found a vantage point that provided an interesting composition of the lake, with distant mountains and some reeds in front. It was not the best scenery I’ve come across but it was worth consideration and a looksee though a camera. I proceeded to set up my camera on a tripod about 20 feet from the car and that is when I heard it, a gun shot and a high pitched whoosh that blew past me. The approach and departure speed of the sound made it clear it was not a normal sound in nature. No bird or bug could move that fast. Combined with the sound of the gunshot it was clear to me that a bullet had just narrowly missed hitting me.
My first reaction was to scream out several choice expletives and give notice that “they” should watch where the #@%* they were shooting. I was pretty sure it was merely an accident, I assumed that target shooters thought shooting in the direction of a vast empty lake was a safe direction. Because of my position, hidden by a small ridge about 50 yards away, they couldn’t see me. Now this is where I have to start to question my obsession with photography. I didn’t pack up and leave, instead I continued to photograph the scene. I don’t think I told my wife about that last part at the time and I don’t think she’d have appreciated my commitment to photography at that particular moment. In hindsight I should have left, because the photo really wouldn’t have been worth it especially if the scene had composed slightly better about two feet to my right and ended this photographic series before it started.
As I left the scene, I wasn’t rattled or anything. In fact, I thought it would make a great story, another one of those stories about my photo trips and how I did something dumb that almost got me into real trouble. My friends love hearing those stories while my wife is usually appalled. I always considered the biggest risk to my pursuit of landscape photographs was from the driving itself, not from bears, mountain lions, etc. There had been a few close calls with critters on my trips but I was always careful and tried to manage any risks. I wear bright red or orange jackets on my hikes because there could be a risk of being mistaken for a deer by hunters, but it seemed a remote possibility, until reality hit home.
The close call at Utah Lake got me thinking about the many shot up road signs I’d been seeing. It became clear to me that there are a lot of bullets flying around America. And those bullets scarring the road signs are just the ones that actually hit a target, with plenty of bullets piercing the signs and continuing on for some distance. What about all the bullets that missed their targets? How many people had a close call or worse? Those thoughts lead me to start photographing the signs.
I decided to name the photographic series “Warning Signs” as both a literal and metaphorical title. A warning that there are other, unanticipated, dangers on the road, one unique to America; too many firearms and too many irresponsible people using them.
I still drive extensively in my pursuit of images, and I will still photograph road signs. Of course I have to be very selective as on many roads nearly every sign has at least one bullet hole and if I stopped to photograph each one I’d never get anywhere. I’ve given thought to how my work sits in the debate over gun control. I’m not directly addressing the carnage happening across America. We’ve all seen the statistics and the horrifying headlines. But unless you have some tangible evidence, something you can actually see with your own eyes and touch with your own hands it can all seem unreal. Road signs with bullet holes are on countless roads throughout the country. They are a constant and ubiquitous reminder of the problem the US has with firearms and how, out of the blue, it could affect you.
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To learn more about Brian Kosoff please visit his page at Brian Kosoff.
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