Women & Guns - A Photo Essay

May 14th, 2006 by Tim Barkow

A portfolio by Ian Spanier

Women & Guns began with an assignment to photograph five individuals who carry guns for different reasons, a probation officer, a grandmother/professional cowboy competition shooter, an ex-LA gang member, a bounty hunter and a domestic abuse victim for Marie Claire magazine.

A year later, I made some photographs of a U.S. park ranger for another story, “Women with Dangerous Jobs.” As my research on the subject of women and firearms continued, my curiosity grew. I heard about an annual event called “End of Trail,” held by the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), where men and women dressed in full cowboy regalia adopt a 19th century alias and compete in shooting events on a huge field in Corona, CA.

I went to the event hoping to find perhaps one or two additions to my portfolio on this topic and ended up photographing 11 amazing women. This launched my project in earnest — I have made 30 portraits to date. Each woman I have met and photographed has inspired me further. What I have come to find is that this project has less to do with the guns themselves and more to do with documenting an amazing and colorful subculture. I have since met and photographed collegiate shooting champions, ex-police training officers, and hunters, among many others. These women are among all of us, you just may not know it. I hope to publish a collection of these portraits in book form.

The women you see in this portfolio and on my Web site all bear arms for their own reasons; my personal view on guns is neither pro or con, nor relevant here. My intention is simply to offer an introduction to these women-mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and sisters. I spoke with some of the women for hours, others for just a few minutes. Some carry guns to protect themselves or others, some carry to provide for their families, some for sport and some to prolong a way of life. Along the way, the stories behind each woman and each gun revealed something about who she is, and the way she lives.

Boothe is from Farmer’s Branch, TX, a small town north of Dallas, where her family’s neighbors were once the notorious Barrow family of Bonnie & Clyde (Boothe says her uncle still has a Barrow gang gun). She grew up with guns and finds having them around “just plain normal.”

Jen (”Foo” as her friends call her) is a sixth-generation Floridian who was raised with firearms around her whole childhood, and now sleeps with one under her mattress. By age six, her parents made sure she understood that guns are “a tool and a weapon.” At age 20, Jen moved to New York and her father bought her a 22-caliber Taurus, telling her that “no daughter of mine is moving to New York City without a gun for protection.”

Boothe and Foo both work in the film industry in L.A., where they met and realized they had guns in common. They like to go to the LA Gun Range, and sometimes venture out to Joshua Tree to shoot stuffed animals in the desert-just for a little change of pace.

Penny, from Dayton, Ohio, is shown here at the End of Trail, an event organized by the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS). Each spring in Norco, CA, hundreds of men and women dress in period clothing and set up a Western town, complete with old-time reenactments and showdowns, as well as shooting competitions and displays of skill. For a terrific taste of the End of Trail, check out the society’s Web site.

Miki, also photographed at End of Trail, hails from Jackson, WY. I only had two minutes with Miki, before she had to go finish shooting in a competition. It was a fun challenge to quickly pull some character out of a intriguing woman. Realizing I had interrupted her competitive focus, I jokingly said, “I bet you would like to shoot me,” and so she did.

Sharon “Black Heart Belle” Johnson
Sharon, from Gilroy, CA, shares the lens with her beautiful chestnut-colored horse Monte. Sharon’s specialty is shooting balloons with a single-action pistol with one hand and steering her horse with the other. As soon as I saw her, I had to meet her. Like many of the women I photographed that day, I only had a quick session, what I hoped I captured was her amazing, quiet strength.

Renee Wilterding
Renee wears many hats: law enforcement training officer, self-defense instructor, assistant teacher in a biology master’s program, photography student, former police officer, mother of four. She is a hero, and she also is a victim.

While she working for the San Bernadino Police Dept., a call came over the radio about a kidnapping. She was traveling toward the station and spotted the perp. A chase ensued and culminated with a one-on-one battle. Renee was beaten and bloodied and eventually passed out during the brawl. Her partner caught up with them and tackled the man. When the perp then started to get the upper hand on her partner, Renee drew her weapon and placed it on the attacker’s temple. The man finally gave up.

Renee retired early because of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the incident. She told me that the attacker’s father saw the whole incident and later wrote her a note thanking her for “not killing my troubled son.”

Sharon Perry Schmucker
I found this ex-NYPD police lieutenant in a random way: while on a golf course in Florida. I was in a foursome that included former NYPD Police Chief Eddie Dreher, who, upon hearing about my project, said, “I’ve got one for you.” Sharon’s defining gun moment came when she was working on the narcotics beat in East New York City when a drug bust went bad. The perp whom the NYPD was chasing pulled out a semi-automatic Mac 10 and proceeded to shoot at Sharon. But, in a “divine intervention” moment straight out of Pulp Fiction, he missed. Apparently, a bulleted outline of Sharon is still on a metal door somewhere in East NY. Sharon, who splits her time between Queens, NY, and New Hampshire, is an elite member of the NYPD, and was offered the prestigious honor of a commendation to the FBI. Her son, also a narcotics officer, came to the photo shoot and couldn’t boast enough about his mother’s achievements. Although retired, Sharon still carries a gun for protection.

Women Hunters of Hardy, Arkansas
I took this photo of the Women Hunters [womenhunters.org] association one early, chilly (15 degrees) Sunday morning in January 2005 in Hardy, AK, a town with a population of 578, one stoplight and one Mickey D’s, which is where they met before their last hunt of the season.
They are a multigenerational group, ranging in age from eight to fiftysomething, and included one pregnant woman among their ranks. The women told me that they not only hunt for sport but also survival. They hunt so they can stock the freezers and feed their families.

Julie Horne, Park Ranger
United States park ranger is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Ranger Julie Horne can be found serving and protecting the Organ Pipe Cactus National Park in Arizona-the only place in North America where the Organ Pipe Cactus grows. Keeping an eye on a plant may seem simple, but keeping an eye on Mexican drug runners crossing the border is far from it.

The Mexico-Arizona border where she works has the standard border set up of a two-lane gate for cars. Beyond that, all that’s keeping the drug runners from crossing the border is about 100 yards of fence that’s already full of car-size holes. They threaten Julie’s life every day. They know when she is home. When she is on duty. When she sleeps. Or goes for a jog. When they make it across, they drive through the park, sometimes dumping garbage-that, in addition to border jumpers, who often collapse and die due to dehydration (it’s a two-day walk to the closest town), pollutes the desert and kills the Organ Pipe Cactus.

A few months before I photographed Julie, her fellow ranger and friend Kris Eggle (http://www.kriseggle.org/) was murdered by a Mexican drug lord. Horne protects herself, and the plants, with an M-16.

Kathy Forster
Kathy is a bird hunter who finds the beauty in guns. She’s skilled in “checkering”-the fine art of adding details to a gun’s barrel, typically hunting rifles. I photographed her with her prize possession, this lovely shotgun, with its twisted metal and fine detailing making it a unique specimen.

Her basement in Portland, OR, is an amazing and chaotic collection of her and her husband’s guns, bullets, and other knickknacks and boxes of who knows what. Although skilled in hunting and training bird dogs, she’s less infatuated with the kill than with the thrill of the outdoors. “I like being in nature, walking with friends, and a faithful dog,” she says.

Eight-Year-Old Hunter
This young girl is a member of the “Women Hunters” group from Arkansas (seen in frame 7). Just before I took the group’s portrait, she had killed her first deer. She’s only eight, though already a serious young girl. She’s here today with her mother, who says in Hardy, AK, hunting is simply a skill a young woman is taught. For her, guns are a matter of tradition-and survival.