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Three years after Manny Oliver lost his son Joaquin in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, he’s hoping to send a powerful message about gun violence, literally.
In a provocative art campaign through the nonprofit organization Change the Ref—which was founded by Manny and his wife Patricia in the aftermath of their son’s death—Manny hopes to change the conversation about gun violence using a popular form of communication: the postcard.
But while most postcards highlight a destination’s most desirable features, Manny plans to use the greeting to focus on the more deadly claims to fame for American cities across the country.
“Greetings from Charleston, South Carolina. Land of the Charleston Church Shooting,” one of the postcards reads. The postcard borrows the same style and bright colors found on traditional cards, but is juxtaposed with graphic images of the June 17, 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which left nine people dead, recreated by one of 30 artists worldwide who participated in the project.
“Greetings from El Paso, Texas. Home of the 2019 El Paso Shooting,” another reads amidst images of fleeing Walmart customers getting shot in the back, referencing the attack at the big box store that killed 23.
These Shamecards, as they are known, were designed to increase awareness about gun violence across America with “provocative, visceral scenes on the front” and “sobering descriptions of each shooting” on the back of each postcard, according to a statement about the project.
Manny is hoping people log on to their website to send the powerful postcards to lawmakers across the country to seek action on gun reform.
“These postcards were made in a way that will make not only the representatives, but locals, understand how others see your city, how others see your community,” he told Oxygen.com.
He and his wife know the pain of gun violence first-hand. The couple lost their son Joaquin on Feb. 14, 2018 after a 19-year-old gunman stormed into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle.
Joaquin was shot four times and was one of 17 students and staff members to lose their life at the school that day.
Manny doesn’t know for sure, but can only hope his only son—who had loved music, was a great writer and had been a “smart dude”—didn’t suffer in those last moments.
His life since that bloody afternoon has been “dramatically different.” Every morning, he wakes up to his son’s empty room. He’ll never see what kind of man Joaquin would have become. He’ll never have grandkids.
And he’s forced to continue to watch as the number of those who die from gun violence continues to grow.
“Since I lost my son, Joaquin ...120,000 people have died because of gun violence,” he said. “All the campaigns, all the efforts, political bulls--t, everything that we have heard, hasn’t brought actual results to the main goal of saving lives.”
Just a few weeks after Joaquin died, he and Patricia knew they wanted to do something to try to stop gun violence—even though they knew they would no longer be as directly impacted by any future violent acts as others who still had something to lose.
“The sad part is they need us, the families of the victims, to create this awareness,” Manny said. “The big difference is that I already lost my son. I don’t carry that fear. Others should be way more concerned than myself to make sure that things change.”
The couple decided the “only way that we can keep playing the role” of parents was to continue the anti-gun violence movement that Joaquin himself had been a part of before his death.
“We went over Joaquin’s whole thoughts and actions and activism and we just made an extension of that,” Manny said of the goals and priorities of Change the Ref.
Manny—an artist himself—is now always striving to find new, creative ways to get his message heard. In 2019, he painted a mural with an American flag with the word “ban” written across it. He pasted a photo of his son, a Key Deer and a Florida Panther on the image, with the words “protected” under the image of the animals, and the word “extinct” under his son’s photo, according to local station WFOR-TV. Last year, Manny and Patricia teamed with artists from “The Unfinished Votes” campaign to use artificial intelligence to bring their son back to life digitally to ask others to “finish” the vote he never could cast, according to the local station.
“The creative process is a constant creative process,” Manny said. “I don’t like staying on a campaign. It doesn’t matter how powerful it was. I might use it later or not, but I am more concerned about what’s next,” he said.
Manny’s efforts now have turned to the Shamecards campaign, which use Americana-style graphics and the power of advertising to help translate their message about gun violence.
“In this particular case, we have very talented artists,” he said of the 30 artists from 25 countries who worked together to create the images. “They were involved at some point in the advertising industry. These guys know how to send a message. I love that.”
One of those artists is Jen McMahon—who created seven of the postcards, including those for Las Vegas, Nevada, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Salt Lake City, Utah and Prices Corner, Delaware—as part of her job with MullenLowe, a Massachusetts-based advertising and marketing agency.
“I feel like that subversive projects don’t come up in creative corporate environments. You know, very risky, impactful, subversive, direct-action kind of projects are usually something you do after work,” she said of her decision to get involved. “When we were given this opportunity to be like, ‘Look, you are going to be involved in some seriously emotionally impactful stuff’ ... I had to jump on that opportunity.”
For each postcard, McMahon researched the violent event through news clips and video and then set to work trying to put pen to paper.
“The images, at least the stuff that I drew, I kept it very loose. Most of the stuff I drew was like a storyboard style and I wanted to convey horror and violence because there is no way to sugarcoat children being slaughtered or family members being murdered,” she told Oxygen.com. “There is no other message. The viewer should be made uncomfortable and scared.”
The emotional aspect of the project took its toll on McMahon, who often worked on the violent postcards while sitting at her desk at home, near a window overlooking her neighborhood.
“I am sitting here and I am hearing the, like, absolute joy of children playing and screaming outside in the summer time and I am inside drawing children being slaughtered,” she said, admitting “that is when the project became difficult for me.”
McMahon eventually had to close her up windows to block out the outside world as she finished the postcards, but despite the heavy emotional toll, she said she was still honored to participate in the project.
“I really want some progressive compassion to come out of this project,” she said. “If one politician in power is affected by this project, a politician that doesn’t already think what everyone who worked on the project thinks, and one of them has a change of heart or a change of mind, I would consider the entire project to be a great success.”
According to Manny, the goal of the project is to get politicians to feel shame about violence their state is now known for.
“We believe that if I am a representative of any of these cities, shame on me if I am letting this image represent the iconic graphics from my city,” he said.
He’s also hoping that many legislators’ own brush with violence last month during the Capitol riot will help motivate change.
“Now they went through that experience, they are lucky they can share the experience, not like Joaquin who has to use his dad to share his experience,” he said.
While Manny is eager to see the impact of this latest campaign, he knows his work is far from over.
“I am very excited,” he said. “It’s another campaign and again, this is a non-stop job. I don’t have any other option but this one, and I am going to do this until my last days.”
To send your own postcard, visit Shamecards.
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