The bullet that paralyzed Karina Vargas wasn't meant for her.
In 2010, Karina, then sixteen, was standing outside of Aurora Central High School. Her classes were over for the day, and she was hanging out with a group of friends, showing off her new puppy. A passing car made a U-turn and nineteen-year-old Luis Guzman-Rincon fired a single shot out the back window. At his trial, prosecutors argued he was aiming for two kids associated with a rival gang who'd approached Karina's group moments before. But the bullet hit Karina, lodging in her back near her spinal cord and paralyzing her from the waist down.
We told Karina's story in our 2013 cover story, "Bullet.Proof."
Since the shooting, Karina has become an advocate for gun control, speaking at rallies and testifying at the State Capitol. So it was an easy decision, she says, when New York-based photographer Kathy Shorr asked her to be part of a photo project called SHOT that features portraits of gun violence survivors. Karina thought it was a unique concept. "I was definitely willing to be a part of something different," says Karina, now twenty. "Her message really spoke to me."
Shorr has been photographing gun violence survivors since 2013. Around that time, she says she began thinking about survivors as a group of people left out of the conversation on gun control. "Things happen to them and they have to go on with their lives," she says. "I thought it might be interesting to put more of a focus on survivors than on people who were killed."
She soon saw a local news interview with a man named Antonius Wiriadjaja, who'd been shot on a Brooklyn street corner just weeks before (and who has been documenting his recovery with a photo a day ever since). Like Karina, he was the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting in which the shooter was aiming for someone else. Shorr got in touch with Wiriadjaja, who agreed to be photographed on the street corner where he was shot.
Wiriadjaja began getting involved in gun-control activism and soon met Karina on the set of a commercial for the group Everytown for Gun Safety. The group had flown Karina to Los Angeles to film the spot, which was to air during the National Rifle Association's annual convention. Wiriadjadja told Karina about Shorr's SHOT project, and Shorr soon got in touch with her. In April 2014, Shorr flew to Colorado to photograph Karina. She says she was inspired by Karina's story.
"Karina is a remarkable, beautiful, sweet girl," Shorr says. "You think of the randomness of that one bullet in her back severing her nerves. I photographed three people — one was shot twenty times, one was shot fourteen times and the other was shot eleven times — and all of them are walking....One bullet, one shot fired into the crowd, and Karina gets it and she’s paralyzed. It's just heartbreaking."
On that same trip, Shorr photographed Moni Gravelly, who was shot in the hand in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012. Gravelly's friend, Jesse Childress, was one of twelve people killed in the tragedy. Shorr connected with Gravelly by writing letters to Aurora victims and asking if they'd like to be part of the project. Gravelly wrote back, and Shorr photographed her with the theater in the background.
Photographing survivors where they were shot, Shorr says, shows the banality of the locations: a street corner in broad daylight, a Walmart parking lot, a person's own home. "These shootings happened in places that we all go to," she says.
Karina hadn't been back to the place she'd been shot until she went with Shorr. "It felt weird," Karina says. "It wasn’t really sad. Like, I knew it happened there, but it was just a normal street with normal houses. But I knew. Like, this is where my life changed."
Shorr also hopes that viewers will recognize themselves in the faces of the survivors. "I hope people see all different kinds of people, all different circumstances — that people like them were shot," Shorr says. "Moni is just a really great woman who is in the Air Force....and she went to the movies with her friend, who sat next to her. And the friend was killed. We can all think about going to the movies on a Saturday night with your good friend."
Shorr's goal is to photograph one hundred gun violence survivors. The criteria for being part of the project is simple. "Anybody that was shot can be part of the project," she says. "I have police who have been shot, and people who have been shot by the police. There is no judgement about why the person was shot." She's more than halfway toward her goal, having recently photographed the fifty-first person. Shorr plans to travel to New Orleans and Kansas City this month to take more photos. Since she's financing the project herself with her earnings as a photography instructor, she tries to photograph more than one person on each trip.
Once she's finished, Shorr hopes to publish the images in a book and show her work in galleries and online. And she hopes the photos will call attention to what she calls America's gun-violence crisis.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I’m not thinking this is a project to say, 'Nobody should have a gun,'" she says. "It's about thinking about who should have guns and responsible gun laws."
For instance, she believes that people with domestic-violence and drunk-driving convictions shouldn't have access to firearms.
"These are the people who I think everybody would agree shouldn't have the right to have a gun. If we started looking at it and not getting so emotional about it and seeing where we come together as opposed to where we differ, much more can be resolved."
View more of Shorr's work below and on her Tumblr site.