The Picture Show

What Grief Looks Like: Documenting The Mementos Left After School Shootings

Photographer Andres Gonzalez's passion project might break your heart. He has spent the past five years documenting mass shootings at American schools.

But not in the way you might expect: There are no landscapes of school yards, crying teenagers, terrified parents or yellow police tape.

Gonzalez has traveled to communities where school shootings have taken place and sifted through archives of the tangible pieces of grief left behind: handwritten letters, crosses, Stars of David, candles with icons, angels, photographs, painted portraits, teddy bears, T-shirts, deflated balloons, origami cranes — a symbol of hope and healing with its roots in Japanese culture.

His forthcoming book, American Origami, collects some of Gonzalez's most powerful images.

In 2012, Gonzalez returned to the U.S. after a Fulbright fellowship in Istanbul and settled in a small town in Mississippi. A couple of weeks later, on Dec. 14, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., took the lives of 20 students and six adults.

"That had a strong emotional impact on me," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "Those emotions really embedded themselves in my soul."

Then, four months later, the effort to legislate universal background checks failed to pass in Congress.

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"That sadness that I was holding on to turned to anger and I knew that I wanted to try and do something with this work," Gonzalez says.

He started by going to the campus of Northern Illinois University, where in 2008 a gunman killed five students before killing himself.

There, a librarian introduced Gonzalez to an archive of all memorabilia collected at makeshift memorials around campus. Before then, he didn't know these kinds of archives existed.

"What I wasn't really expecting was to see the massive amount of material that they had collected. It just went on and on and on," he says. "I still wasn't sure what question I was asking. I didn't know that the memorabilia would be such a big part of the project. But that was the introduction to the work."

Since then, he has traveled to the sites of other school shootings: Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Fla., Columbine High School in Colorado, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

Gonzalez talks about some of the challenges in photographing such items and the lessons he has learned from talking to the families of victims and survivors.

What did these families tell you about whether these condolences mean anything to them?

I was speaking with Kristina Anderson. She's a Virginia Tech survivor and she had said to me something that really stuck with me, which is that she felt all this memorabilia, it becomes a huge burden for families and survivors to go through, to catalogue and to store. It felt like it might be more in the service of the person giving, then the people that have actually been through the violence.

So in that sense, I kind of felt the same thing. Just reading the repeating language, it almost feels like they've been prescribed by these past tragedies. ... It sounds like Hallmark language — "I'm sorry for your loss," "thoughts and prayers" kind of language, so it's complicated for all the families.

How do those communities deal with the hundreds of thousands of letters or teddy bears or crosses or angels that they receive?

A lot of the items are sent directly to the families and what I found is a lot of families don't want them. So, they leave them to the city or to the school, and the schools and the cities then spend time collecting them and finding a home for them and archiving them and cataloging them. I was just in Parkland and they had collected 227 boxes worth of mementos and moved them into Florida Atlantic University's library, where they will eventually be catalogued and stored and then digitized and put online.

Not every community creates an archive, and you have talked to communities where they destroyed the materials they received.

In Sandy Hook they were inundated with so much stuff. They had received over 65,000 teddy bears, over half a million letters, along with quilts and poetry and all the other ephemera that get sent to these sites. At first the city tried to hold it at city hall and it filled up city hall. Eventually they ended up moving it into a small airplane hangar and it filled up the airplane hangar and the city didn't know what to do with it. So the Connecticut State Library created a very small selection that went into the archive, but the majority of it was incinerated.

I met a resident of Newtown, Yolie Moreno, who took it upon herself to photograph and document every single artifact that was sent into town before it was burned. So, she created an online archive, which is really beautiful, called Embracing Newtown. The city designated it "sacred soil," the ash that was the product of the incineration, and now it lives beneath city hall.

In the end, what do you want people to understand about this?

It's complicated, because I see people really trying to connect to these tragedies. But at the same time, the takeaway from this work, I hope, is to realize the inadequacy of that response and that we take accountability for how we behave in the aftermath of these mass shootings. That sending condolence cards, while they do mean something, it's not enough and that our political response is not enough.

Is there a particular photo in the book that sticks with you? An image or one of these pieces of grief that you can't let go of?

I found one index card at the Sandy Hook archive at the Connecticut State Library. It was written in a childlike hand and it just said: "Help is on the way." On the one hand, I felt like it was written in a moment of distress. At the same time, I felt like, well, it doesn't seem like help is on the way.

Alyssa Edes contributed to this report. Renita Jablonski edited the audio story.

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