Colin Ferguson looked me right in the eye. I was squatting on the floor of the 5:33 Hicksville train, hiding from the pointed barrel of his gun. I was pressed between the seats and the window and another frightened passenger back on Dec. 7, 1993, and I thought, “I’m dead in the water here.” I had no place to go.
But as quickly as he had come into my view with his blank expression, he was gone, leaving me alive. Perhaps he passed up my grungy look for someone in a suit— I’ll never know. But when I heard the snap of his gun farther down the car, I was surprised at its tinny, shallow sound, nothing like the Dirty Harry magnum reverberations I would have expected. I figured he was really shooting a cap gun and that no one would get hurt.
A woman with a bloody arm changed my mind. She had been shot in the shoulder and was reciting Hail Marys over and over again, and I gave her my shirt to hold over her wound. I was strangely calm, on autopilot, and I heard another woman yelling that she had been shot in the back. There was blood on the floor of the train, some slumped-over bodies.
I got scared then and left for the Merillon Avenue station platform, walking into the blinding glare of blinking emergency lights, the growl of low-flying helicopters, the surreal tenseness of people standing around or crying or waiting in a crowd of 200 to use a pay phone at the 7-Eleven across the street. I walked back and forth underneath the trestle three times, trying to decide what to do, before I marched like a zombie to the Mineola station, where I was to pick up my wife’s car. She had left it there that day to take a train out east to buy a Christmas tree. I drove in a trance to my brother’s house. He had been on the same train, but got off a station before the shooting. I fell to pieces when I saw him.
Since the Ferguson shooting, I see violent images differently. I don’t feel as removed from them as I used to. I’m also an editor at Photo District News, a photography trade magazine, where I see a great variety of images, some of them disturbing and violent: Kosovo refugees, Kurdish victims, Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s photo of a South Vietnamese girl running from an American napalm bombing attack.
But when I came upon the work of photographer Zed Nelson, a British photojournalist, I found something truly profound. Nelson, motivated by the shooting and killing of 16 school children and a teacher in Dunbane, Scotland, created a series of 100 black-and-white photographs entitled Gun Nation. But instead of focusing on guns in his homeland, he chose to aim his lens at America. The result is an exhibition on view at the Newseum in New York City through September 25.
There are powerful, disturbing images in the show: honeymooners at a firing range; a group of middle-aged, middle-class Memphis women comparing their weapons; a Dallas gun owner holding his daughter and his gun, which seems aimed at the young girl’s head. Through his carefully composed, intriguing images, Nelson exhibits an extraordinary ability to capture a Norman Rockwell world and turn it upside down. Kind of like Colin Ferguson did right before my eyes so many years ago.
Gun Nation thru Sept 25 at Newseum, 580 Madison Ave, 212-317-7596.