American Origami

Andres Gonzalez’s American Origami has 384 pages and over 700 photographs. Its thickness foretells the colossal scale, emotional weight and intricacies of its subject – mass shootings in American schools. It is a narrative whose visual representation is complicated from two, if not more, directions – the arduous task of representing something as visceral as grief, mourning and loss in the static plane of a photograph, and a story that is sensationalised by a fleeting, fetishistic media. Gonzalez spent six years visiting seven sites of some of the deadliest school shootings, exhuming archival documents, handwritten letters, press materials and memorabilia sent in the wake of the events, before coalescing them with his own photographs and texts to create a book that leaves behind embellished accounts to look for empathy, thought and conversation in normality.

At first glance, American Origami’s sombre inside is at odds with the gentility of the origami crane on its cover. The crane, and the book’s title, refers to the Japanese legend that grants a wish from the gods to anyone who makes a thousand origami cranes. Inspired by the story, a Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki who developed leukaemia as a result of the Hiroshima bomb started making origami cranes. On October 25, 1955, Sadako died at the age of twelve after making more than a thousand. Years later in 1977, a fictionalised version of the story in which Sadako didn’t reach a thousand cranes was published for an international audience, and so the origami crane not only became an emblem for those affected by Hiroshima and their prayers for peace, but also an emblem of healing, tragedy and collective grief around the world.

Looking through American Origami is a novel experience. Each shooting is its own chapter, beginning with a sparse spread on which concise facts are laid bare; location, date, time, deaths and non-fatal injuries. Through sequence alone, Gonzalez recognises the autonomy of each shooting whilst pointing to the endless and systematic pattern of these events. What is, however, most notable about American Origami’s construction is its staplebound reversed gatefold. Every spread encompasses a second spread beneath the righthand page, creating an extended and tiered reading of each event. Whereas the surface reading brims with an uneasiness similar to that found in Takashi Homma’s Tokyo Suburbia – one of manicured lawns, sterile facades and vacant dead ends – the extended reading moves emotionally and visually closer to the artefacts of grief. Flowers, personal photographs and notes, tribute cassette tapes and thousands of mementos sent from afar make up the bulk of this strata, and although interviews, speeches and portraits that speak of continuing trauma meander on the surface, there is a distinct rift between how the two layers are experienced. This is what you see, this is what they see. A melding of two intertwined, yet separate, perceptions. In performing this repeated action of revealing and concealing both, we are peeling back the perplexing normality that resumes after mass shootings and making visible the enduring pain that for many is reality. Silent topography gives way to human voices only for us to muffle them again, and the rhythm of American Origami is established. If it was not for this oscillation between distance and nearness, silence and noise, the resounding muteness that initially faces us would see amnesia settle like thick mist. For some, the book’s intricate structure may be too much, and being such a lengthy publication only exacerbates the risk of readers becoming preoccupied with its form. But Gonzalez’s intent is clear; its construction is necessary to show us the unmediated experiences of mass shootings. American Origami teeters on the brink of hindering its own purpose through its making.

Gonzalez’s photographs themselves are a blueprint of lateness, trading images of the actual events for the melancholic traces left in their wake. In revisiting these prosaic scenes long after the atrocity itself and confronting them with the same unsullied gaze, pastness reigns supreme. Campus grounds, empty parking lots and uninhabited interiors are all treated the same. Imbued with powerful silence, they allow grief and remembrance to weigh heavily on our minds as we trudge on, and photography’s inextricable reminder of what has been only strengthen these feelings. But this is what Gonzalez wants. American Origami is not intended to create yet another parade. Gone is the decisive moment and any chance of theatricals, replaced instead by quiet observation. Ordinary over spectacle. Monument over moment.

This belatedness, however, does come with a danger. The persistent distance between camera and subject is dramatically at odds with the emotive subject that writhes beneath, and Gonzalez’s redacted coolness is equally at odds with the complexities of the conversation. Such spatial and temporal distance from something so charged threatens to estrange readers from the senseless brutality that defines mass shootings. In doing so, Gonzalez chances hampering the urgency he wishes to create. Yet he has chosen this explicit restraint to mitigate the habitual hysteria that muddies our usual token responses to these events. Our usual diets of dopamine-driven snippets aren’t working, and this is Gonzalez’s answer.

American Origami is also able to somewhat parry doubts about its distance simply because it is a book. Its longevity in this form, its ability for readers to immerse themselves from their homes as they look at the photographs of similar homes gives it an agency that the work would lose elsewhere. Our physical closeness to it all acts as a counterweight to the distance found in the photographs, in much the same way that whilst the images of the book speak of the past, the conversations laced between them speak of the present and the future. Gonzalez has held back from prodding an already inflamed narrative and come forward with a balanced and thorough assertion.

American Origami ends with the faces of four presidents – Bill Clinton, George W.Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. A blunt reminder of where change has to start but hasn’t yet. How that change can be best catalysed, through spectacle or banality, remains open to discussion. Both flounder to come to terms with a subject so ungraspable, but whichever one you favour, the conversation still needs to be had.