American Origami (Book Preview & Call For Fundraising)

A conversation with Andres Gonzalez
Interview via emails, March 2019

The forthcoming book by photographer Andres Gonzalez, American Origami, examines mass shootings in American schools, the archive of condolence items left behind in their wake, and the ways in which we preform grief. Below is an interview with Andres and a preview of the work.

He is currently “raising funds to cover the production costs of publishing a high quality artists book, which will also serve as a launching platform for a lecture series on the same topic.” Please consider donating to this important project:

Introduce this new book for us. How does your new book, American Origami, get its name?

The book looks at school shootings in America and how grief is performed in the wake of these tragedies. The material I’ve collected is extensive, consisting of interviews, forensic material, images and texts from the news media, texts from chatrooms, and social media platforms, as well as my own photographs and written texts.

The crux of the work is a series of photographs I've made of items sent to the families and communities involved in these shootings. So for instance, condolence cards, poetry, artwork, candles, stuffed animals, these kinds of items. I’ve mostly found these as part of collections inside university libraries, state archives, and local museums.

Pretty soon after I began sifting through these collections I started to recognize certain patterns, one of them being the presence of hundreds of origami cranes. I became very curious how this Japanese paper craft had become such a significant grief ritual in American culture, and when I began to search for that answer, the project started to take shape. 

In Japanese lore, there is a story that promises anyone who makes 1000 origami cranes within a year would be granted any wish. In 1955 a twelve year old Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki, who had been fighting an acute form of leukemia due to radiation poisoning from the US bombing of Hiroshima, embraced this story and set out to make 1000 cranes. The year she died, she had managed to make over 1600 of them.

After her death, she became a national hero, and ever since, these origami cranes have become a symbol of hope in Japanese culture. Today there is a monument to her in Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima where paper cranes can often be found at its base.

In 1977 an American-Canadian children’s book author named Elizabeth Coerr retold Sadako’s story to an American audience in her book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The book became a national best-seller, popularizing Sadako’s story here in the US. In Coerr’s version however, Sadako only makes 644 cranes before she dies, the remaining 356 being finished by her classmates, a fictionalization I always found curious. Around this time, origami cranes began to show up at the sites where tragedy has occurred, and have since become an American grief ritual. After discovering the history of this story, I began to think about this relationship between myth-making, atonement, and absolution, leading to questions that eventually guided the work.

How did the project begin, what set you out in search of the condolence items created in response to mass shootings at American schools?

I moved back to the US in December of 2012. Prior to starting this project, I had been living abroad for about 7 years, mostly in Istanbul. This was during the Bush years and WMD, so it was a time that being an American abroad meant being constantly on the defensive, and rightly so. As a subconscious response, my personal work during that period started to drift away from storytelling, and instead I set out to visualize an internal world, perhaps reflecting what it felt like to be a foreigner. 

Coming back home, where I could speak the language fluently, where I felt familiar, seemed like a good change. I had also just published my first book, so was ready to engage in something new. Two weeks after moving back, Sandy Hook happened. The emotions from that day embedded themselves deep, and they lingered for a long time. I followed the aftermath closely, and began reading a lot about this type of violence, not really formulating anything as a project yet, at that point it was just as a curiosity. But then in April 2013, after all those parents mobilized in Washington, and even universal background checks failed to pass in Congress, I was absolutely appalled by our government. This pulled me deeper into the issue, and it just evolved from there. 

What do you feel is important about examining, considering and remembering these objects? Why does it matter?

Despite my cynicism, I want to believe that this country's relationship with violence will evolve, that our humanity will evolve. I’m not sure how that's going to happen, especially when you look around today, and this is not a guide for some remedy. In doing this work I wanted to produce a document illuminating patterns hidden within this type of violence, to present a counterpoint to the conventional narratives from corporate media, private interests, and political messaging. I also wanted to show the confounding accumulation of grief in its various forms, and these artifacts became a focus. Some of the letters I found were beautifully written and even confessional - real people trying to connect to something incomprehensible. I also felt like these items articulated an attempt to reconcile this particular kind of violence - at times even feeling like a reach for absolution - while also embodying the inadequacy of public response. I don’t think I’ve figured out how I feel about all these things, and the entire book speaks from this ambiguous space.

Why did you choose the book format to share this research and tell this story? How has the design of the book developed over time?

I always imagine project ideas in the book format first. I think this is from my long time (now long gone) desire to write fiction. Novels allow for layers of meaning to be revealed over time, for double entendre, for complex drawn out metaphors. Toni Morrison said once, literature has the ability to “illuminate the moral questions embedded in a narrative.” I am guided by that thought.

The ideas for the book have changed consistently over the 6 years I’ve been thinking about it, but its gone through four physical iterations. Each version refined certain problems, but the one aspect I struggled with was how to present all the different layers of information without the book feeling too overwhelming or fractured. It wasn’t until I passed the material on to the designer Hans Gremmen that it all started to really come together. Hans came up with a solution that creates a book within a book, reflecting the hidden nature of the archives, while also giving the sense that our grief (perhaps our violent nature) is always there just under the surface.

Where are you now in the process, and when will the book be published? How can we help support this project?

The book is pretty much done, just a few design tweaks we’re still working on. I am currently trying to raise funds to cover my portion of the production costs so we can go to print in the next couple of months. You can pre-order a book here: