Ben Philippi is nuts about guns

We speak to local photographer Ben Philippi about his History Channel TV series God, Guns & Automobiles and American gun culture.

God, Guns & Automobiles filming. Photo by Ben Philippi.

A good number of Montrealers are self-styled photographers. Some might even get it together to self-publish a book of their pictures. But most of them don’t go on to develop the book into a History Channel reality show with two million viewers.

But then, Ben Philippi is not like most Montrealers.

Born and raised here, Philippi started his career as a promoter and videographer in the circus arts. He eventually fell for a circus performer, and moved with her to California. That’s where he became interested in American gun culture as a subject.

“I was always interested in guns,” says Philippi, who grew up hunting and target shooting. Now that he was based in the gun-crazy USA, he “wanted to know why there were enough guns in America to arm every man, woman and child.” He placed an ad on Craigslist looking for gun owners who wanted to be photographed.

Philippi collected the resulting photos into a book, God Guns Guts. The portraits are definitely a microcosm of contemporary America — alternately powerful, chilling and proudly garish. “If you look at my book and you don’t like guns, then you’ll be like, ‘these people are insane and I’m really bewildered by them.’ But if you do like guns, you’ll think ‘this is really well presented and makes sense,’” Philippi says. “I wanted to stay neutral.”


Erich “Mancow” Muller and Mark Muller, two American badasses who star in the show. Photo by Ben Philippi

When the book was complete, Philippi approached several publishing houses. “Nobody was interested,” he recounts. “So I was like ‘fuck that, I’m gonna publish it myself.’ I borrowed some money from my dad, I got 1,000 copies published and I started to promote any way I could.”

This promo spree included taking a meeting with producer Michael Kronish of Zone 3, a Montreal production company. Kronish was fascinated by the book’s cover subject, Mark Muller. A car dealer in small-town Missouri, Muller had briefly gained national prominence with an unhinged CNN interview, instantly becoming a poster boy for gun rights and a scourge for gun critics.

Muller had come onto Philippi’s radar during his travels for the book, when the photographer got wind that Muller was offering to give an AK-47 away as a car-sale promo. “I thought it was very unique and special, and disturbing but also amazing at the same time,” he recalls.

Philippi developed a documentary series about Muller for Zone 3. Eventually, the series, entitled God, Guns & Automobiles, was picked up by the U.S. History Channel. With Philippi on board as an associate producer, the show documents Muller’s over-the-top personality as well as his acts of kindness (much to his fellow managers’ dismay, he keeps hiring recovering addicts and other misfits to whom he wants to offer a second, or third, chance).


Philippi candidly admits he’s not a fan of reality TV shows. “In general, I don’t like them because they seem very fake. They seem scripted, and a lot of them are,” he says. “We keep it very much real and unscripted.” At the same time, “you can’t just turn on a camera and expect things to happen. But it’s incredibly difficult to steer a bunch of misfits and renegades. They do whatever the hell they want.”

This quintessentially American libertarian spirit is what attracts Philippi to the characters he documents. “I really like to do things myself. I don’t like rules and regulations, I don’t like being told that you can’t do something,” he explains.

Although he claims neutrality, Philippi’s views on guns are well to the right of the mainstream in Canada, never mind Quebec. During our conversation, he alternately referred to guns as a harmless hobby and casually suggested that the imposition of a new tax would be a legitimate reason for an armed uprising against the government. If you approach his work expecting the typically condescending Canadian attitude towards U.S. gun culture, prepare to have your views shaken up.

Now once again based in Montreal, Philippi is currently waiting to hear if God, Guns & Automobiles will be renewed for a second season. In the meantime, he’s working on an expanded edition of his book. “I hope to make it into what I wanted it to be in the first place, which is the greatest book ever about American gun culture,” he says with distinctly un-Canadian bravado. “That’s gonna happen, it’s just gonna take a little time.” ■

God, Guns & Automobiles premieres on History Canada on Thursday, Aug. 29. That same night, Ben Philippi will screen the first two episodes of the series at a special event, also featuring a photo exhibit from his book God Guns Guts along with a DJ set from Sam Goldberg (Broken Social Scene) and a performance by Goldberg’s band Yardlets. It all goes down at NOMAD Nation (129 Van Horne), 7 p.m., free, BYOB.

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