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Branching Out: What those hunting photos say

Locations: Opinion Published

A conversation has opened within hunting as more people of infinite diversity have entered its sacred realm: What is an appropriate photograph when we “fill our tags?” “Bag” our animal? Secure clean food in fair chase for our families?

A thousand words cannot capture the moments after the dust settles, an animal releases its last breath, and a hunter reconciles their new reality. Let’s be honest here — wherein a Homo sapien takes the life of another sentient being.

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Those universally photographed moments encompass three elements: the deceased animal, an alive hunter, and a firearm. From there on, each photo is unique to the hunter. Facial expression, body language, body in relation to prey, hand placement, a hunter’s attire, the position of the animal, cleanliness of the kill — all these and more indicate so much: a hunter’s self esteem, self discipline, their family or peer culture, food beliefs, respect for other beings, integrity, compassion — or lack thereof. 

As a hunter, I stopped taking those photos of myself. For me the celebration would be around my kitchen table with special people. The progression photos of me and mostly deer, some elk, grouse, and pheasants, very clearly show my confusion. And I’m still confused to this day, taking a life for my own. I’m comfortable with this uncertainty, though, because it indicates I’m still learning. Still discovering. Examining the relationship between me and my food, me and the world and my place in it.

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My first animal was a doe. Having worked so hard through the years and that hunting season for her, my smile was euphoric. Next, was a cow elk, another first. Remorse clouded my face. She was a grande dame, the hair upon her breast an aged, shaggy blonde that I had spotted naked-eyed at 400 yards among her herd. Ensuing ungulates taught me that I will always cry, taking such a magnificent life. And pray; give thanks. A photograph, to me, captured a wildness snuffed out. Eyes gone flat. The splash of blood, an ending instead of a beginning. I don’t want to document that.  

Is this hypocritical, some of us ask? Are we hiding “truth?”

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Like many girls, I learned to hunt from men. A friend here. A buddy there. One lucky season, with a mentor. I trundled after them, hanging on their words, studying their actions. Hampered by ill-fitting sales-rack men’s camo and gear, I felt clumsy and uncertain, filled with so many questions, tripping over long pant legs. As a shy person acquiring new competencies, I often felt eclipsed by more vocal, more dominant, or more experienced hunters. Or in “therapy speak,” I felt “less than.” 

Over the years, I’ve come to cherish solitary hunts. I have the bowl of sky to mirror my multitude of emotions. I have canyons, arroyos, mountains and forests to wander about in; nap, sketch, read, or write. I’ve slowly made hunting “mine.” Not what a guy tells, or a magazine advertises to me. It’s just Pollyanna me out there, blowing my mind in the natural world. And at times, this leads to deeply intimate, direct experience with animals. Sometimes, taking their life.

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I’m an Artemis Ambassador through the National Wildlife Federation, tasked with growing and sustaining an outdoors community for interested female archers, anglers, hunters, and conservationists. We are five ambassadors across Colorado, and 20-30 across the United States. As ambassadors, we are making our mark on what has always been considered a man’s realm.

And we are talking about kill shots. Trophy shots. Grip and Grins. And we are asking ourselves questions, too, as we make way for oncoming generations of future sporting folks— women, children, black people, brown people, vegetarians, poets, chefs. What would a hunting culture led by women look like, sound like? 

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Watching a First Lite gear video targeting women this week, I killed the sound immediately— hard driving, ripping guitars blasted at me, akin to the majority of extreme sports videos. And tha? Ain’t me. When I carry my .270, I’m walking quietly, eagerly, lost in the Disney music of my Marty Stauffer memories, circa 1977. The soundtrack to my hunting is definitely not Ted Nugent… more like George Winston or Horowitz. I’m not rad, extreme, or tough….nope. Soft and gentle, she goes.

Artemis has Facebook pages; we have our private ambassador pages, our website, — artemis.nwf.org – podcasts, blogs… Throughout all of it, we maintain clear standards, upholding the values and ethics of the National Wildlife Federation. We espouse fair chase. We shun needless violence towards animals or people. And as a women’s group redefining hunting for ourselves, we’re looking at how we choose to portray our experiences. We want to be honest about killing to eat. But will that be in the form of a photo? A video? Paintings? New interpretations of “the mount?” Poems? Stories?

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A picture might be worth 1,000 words, my Artemis mentor tells me, but no thousands of words can possibly portray what is captured in the photograph of hunter and prey. 

If this piece upsets anyone, my sincere apologies. I am open to discussion if you feel you need that.

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