It's funny where the art work takes you sometimes. My dad was a machine gunner with the First Marine Division during World War II. He fought the Japanese all through the Pacific island campaigns until severe wounds sent him home for good after fighting on the Island of Peleliu. He never fully recovered emotionally or physically from his experience, and didn't live to see his 50th birthday. To this legacy I added my own experience in the Marine Corps and Vietnam where I served for 19 months during 1968 and 1969. Since that time I have been making photographs about things that I have noticed along the road of life. Around 1977 I began to study and collect original photographic portraits from the American Civil War period. Favorite images included heavily armed young men brandishing weapons and posing proudly for the camera in their fresh new uniforms. If there was an American flag in the background, that was even better. Dozens of images from my collection have been published over the years. Without really being conscious of it, photography and guns have been central themes in my life for a long time. I always thought my own photographs were personal, but in many ways they weren't because few of them dealt with that central theme of how guns have affected my life. It isn't an easy theme to photograph.
In the summer of 1994 I was enjoying a visit to the American Museum of Consumerism and Pop Culture (most people know it as WAL-MART) and found myself fascinated by the displays in the Action Figures and Doll Departments. I began making acquisitions almost immediately, and found myself in the studio making photographs about gender stereotypes, sexual role models, weapons, and other things that GI Joe and Barbie so clearly represented. These photographs are also about me, though. I don't own a gun, and I haven't fired one since being discharged from the Marines, but there isn't a day since my Vietnam experience that I haven't thought about guns. Too many of my friends died for me not to think about it. There have been plenty of new experiences to keep me thinking about guns since then. And hey, how about that Gulf War, huh? The nation sure cleared the books with that one. So soldiers are heroes after all. So guns are useful tools. Let's get the women in on it. Why should GI Joe and his Team have exclusive access to weapons. Let's arm Barbie, Ken and friends as well. Let's get little girls and boys playing war. A little style is what we need in the theater of combat, and if we can get the kids thinking about war early enough, they'll all be ready when their time comes. Gi Joe has an incredible arsenal of weapons to choose from. He is just like us real people.
America has a long legacy with the gun. It is our right to own one. Photography has played a role in maintaining that legacy. I think about kids and guns and war. Guns have affected me and my life profoundly. I think about being a man. I worry about the future for all of us and what role the gun will have in the world to come. My photographs are about all of those things.
Kean E. Wilcox
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