Old Town, Florida
By Brian Blanco
You feel a moment. I’m not certain if it’s a second lost or a second gained, but in that moment the Earth stops. It’s the moment you watch a child, a young girl in purple shoes, pull a loaded AK-47 assault rifle from the cab of a pick-up truck.
The child, 9-year-old Brianna, had no ill intentions with the weapon of course. She was simply retrieving the gun for a man she affectionately calls “Uncle Jim”. He is Jim Foster, a 57-year-old former police officer and the leader of the North Florida Survival Group. The organisation teaches children and adults alike to handle weapons, and Jim refers to it as a ‘militia”.
Jim was the man who, after feeling out my intentions in a two-hour meeting at a chain restaurant a few weeks earlier, had granted me permission to photograph his group’s field training exercise. It was an opportunity I snatched up without hesitation. It’s not every day that a photojournalist gets an invitation to shoot a militia gathering. Understandably, they tend to be fairly secretive groups who don’t exactly keep the media on their Christmas card lists.
When I first emailed Jim requesting access to his organisation for a story about second amendment issues, I fully expected to have my email dragged straight to the trash, never to hear from him again. Within hours he proved me wrong. He left a phone message thanking me for contacting him and agreeing to meet with me face to face, albeit sans cameras or tape recorders.
It wasn’t exactly the response I was expecting from a man whose first few sentences under his “About Me” section of his website, under a photo of him dressed head-to-toe in camo and holding an AK-47, says that he believes our freedom as Americans is in jeopardy and that our government is moving us toward socialism. I knew, based on the political messages and blog entries on his site that he and his members would have strong political opinions and that it might be necessary for me to dust off a cheesy line I stole years ago from an even cheesier Nick Nolte movie from the 1980s where Nolte, playing a predictable version of a war photojournalist, is asked what side he’s on and his response: “I don’t take sides, I take pictures.”