From Hunter to Wildlife Photographer, and Back Again.
As one who is firmly rooted in the worlds of both nature & wildlife photography, as well as the hunting, fishing, and subsistence living lifestyle, I’m often asked how I can on one day be peacefully exploring nature and photographing wildlife, and on another day, be pursuing many of those same animals as a hunter. That’s a very important question that I don’t take lightly. It’s also one which requires a thorough, respectful explanation. There is a fair amount of controversy today about the subject of hunting. In fact, even daring to speak the word out loud in certain societal circles will be met with an almost violet backlash! For many people today, especially those in big city and urban environments, who are far removed from the natural world, hunting is an inconceivable concept.
While there are few things I enjoy more than exploring and sharing unique experiences of wild nature and wildlife through writing and photography, I actually became a nature and wildlife photographer through sort of an evolution from other outdoor activities. The vast majority of my time spent in the outdoors in my younger years has been primarily as a fisherman, hunter, and adventurer. Like many Americans, those activities were a regular part of my upbringing and were firmly rooted in the local culture. I began fishing literally before I can even remember, and my role as a hunter began as soon as I was strong enough, educated enough, and responsible enough to become an active participant in nature’s cycle of life…which in essence, is what hunting is all about. Fish, wild game, and home-grown vegetables were a substantial part of my diet growing up. As an adult, my diet now consists of those things almost exclusively. With rare exception, I have not purchased meat or fish from a store in over twenty years. I know exactly where my food comes from, where and how it lived, how it was harvested, processed, cooked, and all the rest. I take 100% responsibility for the renewable resources that become the food I eat, as well as the health and sustainably of the land that produced it.
Hunting: Ethical and Necessary?
In rural, remote places like Kodiak Island, Alaska, where I currently live, hunting, fishing, and the subsistence lifestyle is not always a mere choice. For many, it is an absolute necessity. The vast majority of our fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, and other staples of basic nutrition have to be shipped in, resulting in extremely high costs to the consumer. For those who do not have substantial income, if they do not find an alternative, cost-effective method of filling the freezer with quality, essential, high protein food sources for the year, they will be in big trouble! And, in places like rural Alaska, and other remote areas across the country, there is nothing more cost-effective, and truly natural, than providing food through the responsible management and personal harvesting of renewable, natural resources…that is…hunting and fishing. After all, the native Alaskans have done it for centuries and virtually every creature that roams this land, from the tiniest songbird to the most massive of Kodiak bears, spends every day of its life doing the same: actively seeking out food, which comes as another form of life. Don’t forget, a universal principle of life on planet earth is that something has to die for something else to live.
The food chain and the cycle of life are often brutal, undeniable realities of the natural world. A true hunter is one who becomes a responsible, active participant in the actualizing of those primordial principles, and who also knows firsthand the reality of the genuine price that must be paid for a meal, and ultimately, for one’s survival. Native American musician and historian R. Carlos Nakai describes the process quite profoundly. “We hunt, making food out of many of the things around us. Sometimes we have to cry about those things. Like the deer and the elk and other large game animals, because they give their lives so we can stay alive. When I hunt, after I’ve gotten the animal down, I have to go and sing a little prayer into its ear, as it will be laying there watching me, before it’s spirit leaves. I breathe in its last breath, so it becomes me, and I become a part of that life that is ebbing away. And then I thank it, because one day I too will feed everything that surrounds me. It’s a give and take relationship.” I can confidently say that the majority of those who live a hunting/fishing/subsistence lifestyle share this same humble, respectful spirit of gratitude. I too, get down on my knees after harvesting an animal and spend time in prayerful thanksgiving. It is also why I feel so strongly about the truly sinful nature of wasting food…especially food that was once a living, breathing creature.
Food, Photographs, and Much More
As a hunter and fisherman, while fresh, organic, humanely harvested food on the table and in the freezer is certainly the end goal, it is a tiny part of the entire experience…at least for me. As I often tell folks, when you add up the countless hours of quality, unforgettable, cherished time that a hunter or fisherman spends literally immersed in the beauty of creation, a grand total of a matter of seconds is spent actually taking the life of something. The rest of that time, all those countless hours and days, with all their glorious sunrises and sunsets, with all the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that much of humanity never experiences, are spent admiring, studying, and actively participating in the primal ways of the natural world. In fact, the desire to capture and share such experiences is what gave birth to my love of photography.
Many years ago, I began to notice more and more, that during my time spent in the field hunting or fishing, I was constantly saying to myself, “Darn! I wish I had a camera! Look at that!” And so, I eventually bought a decent point-and-shoot camera to take with me anytime that I headed to the woods or the waters. I soon began to notice that what started off as simply a means of capturing memorable moments of outdoor adventure, photography eventually began turning into the adventure itself. I found myself spending more and more time seeking out things to capture with my camera instead of my bow or fishing rod. “Catch and release hunting,” I began to call it…which one can do year-round. The only downside is that one can’t eat photographs and memories!
The Sacred Hunt and the Photographer
Again, for many in our modern, so-called civilized society, “hunting” is a dirty word and an extremely misunderstood activity. Certainly, there are those who have given it a bad name and who have only amplified the misconceptions about the true nature of the hunt even more. There are, unfortunately, those who only care about a big set of antlers, and who will do anything to get them, no matter how unethical. However, in order to truly understand the core value and purpose of hunting, one must go back to its roots. For the earliest human beings and the native/aboriginal peoples of our world, hunting was not only a vitally essential way of life in order to provide food, shelter, tools, clothing, etc., but it was elevated to a scared activity. Prayer, ritual, music, dance, and various art forms all expressed and celebrated the essence of the hunt: the connection with the Creator, respect for the forces of nature, ancestral ties, the passing on of tribal traditions and values, the learning and disciplined exercising of skills, the magnificence of the game animals they pursued, and the gratitude for the earth’s bounty.
To become a successful hunter, one began training at an early age. One needed to develop in bodily strength and mental cunning, as well as grow in virtue in order to possess the patience and persistence necessary for the hunt. It was essential for a young hunter to become intimately familiar with, and extremely knowledgeable of, the animals he was to pursue, as well as the land which those creatures inhabit. Along with that, the hunter had to learn tracking skills, survival, stalking and stealth skills, deadly proficiency with a primitive weapon, ambush techniques, meat processing and preservation skills, cooking skills, etc. The list goes on and on.
True hunting was not, and has never been, simply a matter of going out and killing a defenseless animal in order to fulfill a depraved bloodlust. Hunting and killing are two very different things. While most people today hunt at the grocery store, very few actually kill their own food. Don’t forget, too, that a vegetarian lifestyle is not totally devoid of killing either, as hundreds of thousands of animals are killed nationwide in the process of growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables. Keep in mind, that the end result of many hunts, both ancient and modern, is the hunter coming home empty handed. When a hunter is seen rejoicing over the carcass of a freshly harvested game animal, it is not because he is rejoicing over the death of the creature, but rather, the hunter is rejoicing because his herculean effort has paid off. He knows good and well that the animal’s death will provide the essentials of life for him and his family. And for this, the hunter’s gratitude and respect were elevated to a truly scared, spiritual level, as is still the case today for those who hunt with the proper intentions. A similar phenomenon holds true for a dedicated wildlife photographer. Getting photographs of elusive, wild animals is certainly not always an easily achieved, done deal. A tremendous amount of patience, preparation, hard work, and sacrifice can go into producing one, single, quality image for which the photographer rejoices and shares with others.
The Wildlife Photographer as Hunter
Make no mistake about it, to successfully photograph truly wild animals in their true, wild, habitat, one must undergo many of the same preparations and have a skillset very similar to that of a hunter. The wildlife photographer who ventures far off the beaten path must be able to survive and thrive in rather unforgiving, extremely remote settings. To successfully capture images of one’s targeted subject in the natural world, one must have a thorough knowledge of the subject, be able to scout out and locate areas where the subjects dwell, have the skills necessary to get within camera range and do so respectfully and safely. Like a well-seasoned hunter, the wildlife photographer must have a tremendous amount of patience, perseverance, and the ability to stay focused and comfortable in some very uncomfortable situations. Expecting the unexpected and being fully prepared for whatever Mother Nature dishes out from day to day is a must. Perhaps most importantly, the successful wildlife photographer must have an undying, child-like sense of adventure and wonder. After all, that’s what it’s all about. While it can get nasty and dangerous out there in the bush, and one often lives and feels like a wild animal while in pursuit of one, when it’s all said and done, it’s a joyous excitement that culminates not only in incredible photographs but also in unforgettable, priceless experiences that one can pass down to their tribe for generations to come.
The fruit of one’s effort as a wildlife photographer also goes far beyond just great images and epic memories from quality time spent in the field. In adopting the mindset and disciplined skills of a hunter, one’s sensory powers are greatly increased. Hunting sharpens one’s senses to a razor’s edge! When I return from extended outings in the wild, I find that I’m hypersensitive to the subtlest of sounds, movements, colors, aromas, etc. All of my senses are on fire and operating on an extremely elevated level. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to be so tuned in and connected to both one’s external surrounds, and also to one’s interior physical capabilities.
This elevation of the powers of one’s senses and overall awareness, and being consciously aware of it, in turn, plays an immensely important role in developing “the eye” that a photographer strives to possess. Developing a hypersensitivity to visual detail enables one to instinctively recognize a potential photographic composition. One’s time on a photo-shoot is used much more efficiently when one can simply look at a scene, evaluate it in the blink of an eye, and instantly know if it will produce the kind of images one is after. The untrained eye takes many things for granted and glances over vast amounts of information and data in a split second. Everything one sees tells a story and can lead to the discovery of great beauty, which of course is what a nature photographer hopes to capture and immortalize.
Finally, and most importantly, the more one becomes an active participant in the natural world by spending quality time in it, the more one gains an appreciation for the delicate balance of life on our planet. The wild world is both a beauty and a beast. Nature is not a Disney movie, and it must not be approached as such. While there is tremendous allure in the wilderness, there is also incompressible savagery in the struggle for survival. Both extremes are a reality that ultimately produces balance and life for the next generation. No matter what the inspiration or motives may be for entering the wild, be it hunter or photographer, those motives must be rooted in the deepest spirit of respect. In return, respect for nature is indeed rewarded, with both life-sustaining nourishment, as well as spirit nourishing memories.
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