A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words; Sometimes That Isn’t Enough

One of the things I frequently discuss with other hunters is the importance of public perceptions of hunting. I would imagine that most non-hunters never personally witness or participate in a hunt, meaning that their perception of hunting is developed through their perception of hunters. This means that the way we portray ourselves and represent hunting has impacts on the future of the activity (since hunting is affected by laws that are determined by a largely non-hunting voting public). As hunters, what do we do when one of our primary ways of representing hunting contributes to the very misunderstandings about the intentions and character of hunters that we work so hard to change?

I’ve seen many heated debates and angry comments on social media sites begin around a picture of a hunter and an animal he/she has killed (take a look at any of Cameron Hanes’s pictures for examples). This is one of the most common ways that hunters represent the story of the hunt. I think the use of photos from a hunt can be a great opportunity to engage with non-hunters and express ourselves, but perhaps an opportunity that is sometimes difficult to capture, especially when taking place in the impersonal space of social media.

I have been reluctant to post pictures of myself with animals I’ve killed. I’ve often felt like it’s just a ticking time bomb for misperception. I can even understand the issue that non-hunters (i.e. those who do not hunt and don’t necessarily understand the experiences and emotions involved in hunting, but not necessarily anti-hunters) have with pictures of smiling hunters holding a dead animal. Put yourself in their heads for a moment: the knee-jerk reaction is to see an expression of a bragging right over killing an animal. It’s difficult to convey the preparation, training, practice, time, effort, and emotions spent leading up to that moment. It’s perhaps easy to confuse elated pride with arrogance.

One of the things I’d like to do here is try to offer any non-hunting readers a glimpse into the mindset and intention of hunters when we post these sorts of pictures. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and like any group of people, we’re not all the same. But I can at least speak to my experience of the people I hunt with and most hunters I know. For hunters, I think there are some things we can do to better represent ourselves through these pictures. Most people probably already do these things, but in the interest of a well-rounded discussion, I’ll speak to hunters, too.

First, let’s try to diffuse some preconceptions for non-hunters reading this, which I hope there are (you’ll have to honestly be open to reconsidering some ideas). Here’s how I assume it looks to you: hunting pictures are probably reminiscent of colonizers standing over a conquered land, or images of a defeated army, or iconic representations of a hero having triumphed over a weaker foe. In other words, it probably evokes associations of blood thirst, anger, and superiority. Perhaps something similar to this?

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn
Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

My experience is that when someone takes a photo with an animal he/she has killed, it is never done with a sense of the triumph of the powerful over the inferior; there’s no celebration of anything conquered. Rather, it’s the expression of a relationship developed through intense preparation and commitment. Here’s how things look for a hunter in the year(s) leading up to a hunt: there is research into the ecology of the animal to learn its patterns and how it changes throughout its life; there is some kind of training, usually a combination of physical preparation and practice with whatever tool is going to be used (gun or bow); there is fairly substantial financial investment into the hunt, which benefits the entire economy and especially the research and habitat management for a range of wildlife species (for example, a typical deer hunting season will cost me $50 for the individual hunting tag, probably about $200 throughout the year in fees to practice with my bow or ammunition costs, at least $75 in memberships to hunting insurance/conservation organizations, incidental costs throughout the season related to general supplies, and then there might be benefits to the tourism industry with costs for food and accommodations); and then hours spent in the actual hunt, probably at least some of this time in physically demanding and uncomfortable situations.

In summary, the moment when the animal walks out and an arrow or bullet is released is only one step in the process. It’s the culmination of immeasurable effort and commitment (and other than my attempt in the previous paragraph, we don’t really try to measure it, because it’s the process that’s important, and the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts). By this time, every hunter I know will have developed a deep affection and fascination with the species, and maybe even individual animal, being hunted.

When a hunter takes a photo with the animal, there’s no feeling of callous detachment from the life of that animal; there’s only admiration for the wildlife, and excitement over the nutritious food that the animal will provide. I can assure you that any photo I’ve taken with any animal I’ve killed has not done justice to the emotions I’m feeling in the moment. I would encourage non-hunters to remember that when you see one of these photos and feel a strong emotional response, know that we do too, whenever we look back on them. Although it can look like arrogance, it’s not. What you’re seeing is probably best summarised by gratitude, humility, and happiness.

It might be better represented by this photo.

Donnie Vincent with caribou
Credit: Donnie Vincent

For other great examples, check out Remi Warren or Donnie Vincent.

Now, to hunters reading this, I offer some ideas for how we can try to address this conundrum. In every hunt, there is a story. Like all good stories, these usually involve struggle, some success, laughs, disappointment, excitement, and a host of minute experiences that you really “had to be there” to understand. Tell of these moments with the pictures. In the captions to the photos, tell the story articulately, sensitively, and in a way that truly represents how you think about the hunt. Be honest about the emotions, even when those are ones of wild happiness. We shouldn’t be afraid to take pride in an accomplishment, but we can do so with modesty. I encourage other hunters not to think of this as pandering to anti-hunters; think of it as an opportunity to be an ambassador of our lifestyle; take pride in the opportunity to show how positive hunting is in your life and for the ecology and conservation of wildlife. As always, show the animal respectfully and think about how you can represent your relationship with that individual animal through the photograph. These pictures can give others the chance to reflect on their own emotional responses to hunting and explore a different form of wildlife photography, and we really want them to come out the other side with a more positive outlook than when they started.

We rarely have the time necessary for long conversations in which we can fully express our opinions and feelings about these topics. Often, it’s the photographs of our hunts that friends and family see and that make their way around social media sites. We might only have that 1 minute someone spends looking at our picture to tell the story and represent the complex relationship hunters have with wildlife and the natural world. We need to use each of these minutes.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, even a thousand is not enough; but we can at least start with those thousand words and use them to their fullest potential.

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