People Are Watching
What are we showing them?
Can you find the seven dead surf scoters in this Instagram post?
No? OK, click on the post so you can see the whole thing. They’re there, just not in the way we’ve come to expect these days.
This Instagram post represents my evolution away from the “hero shot,” spurred by a lot of listening and looking at data about how people react to photos of hunters grinning with animals they’ve killed. For many, it might as well be a shot of someone grinning in front of an open casket at a funeral.
I understand hunting hero shots: They are mementos of successful hunts. I can defend those photos: They represent a mere sliver of the experiences that hunters savor on any given day. Hell, I take those photos, and I still include them with other hunting shots on my (friends-only) Facebook page and occasionally on Instagram.
I’m not going to pretend that a successful hunt doesn’t make me happy.
But I really don’t want those photos to dominate my Instagram feed during hunting season, because that feed is visible to everyone. If dead-animal photos are all that people see of our hunts, it can reinforce the perception that the kill is the only thing that matters about our hunts.
It’s tempting to growl about being restrained by the ignorance of non-hunters. They are, after all, an anomaly in the greater span of human history.
But a new book by my friends Jan Dizard and Mary Zeiss Stange, “Hunting: A Cultural History,” reframed this for me.
Jan and Mary make a compelling case that humans have always viewed hunting with mixed emotions because we know it ends the life of a fellow animal. We’ve always had societal rules dictating acceptable behaviors and attitudes for hunters. You need look no further than any hunter-gatherer culture’s hunting rituals to see this.
Now, the stakes of meeting those expectations have never been higher: Hunters are such a small minority that we can be extinguished by a majority if they collectively find our behavior unacceptable.
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The graph below shows that only one in four people surveyed felt hunters should not be allowed to post photos of their kills on social media. This may seem like a safe margin, but that big middle column can contain plenty of people who are turned off by such photos, but would stop short of a ban. And if you pay close attention to any legislative (or electoral) process, you know that vocal, angry minorities - on the left and the right - have a LOT of say in the outcomes of big decisions.
Modern North American hunters have plenty of rules to follow, but the rules focus on protecting the health of wildlife populations, which has worked incredibly well. Game species - and many others in their habitats - thrive because hunters take care of the resource that takes care of us.
But with the exception of wanton waste laws, the amount of respect we show to the animals we hunt, and the ways we show it, are largely left up to individual hunters.
My friend Rue posts sparingly about her hunts, with no close-up gore, and often more subtle depictions of dead animals. Like sex in the movies in the old days, a hint tells the story just fine.
(Photo by @heritage_andreabogard)
Rue posts more photos of the game she’s cooking than the game she’s just killed, and that has had a significant impact in her social media circles: Her friends and fans see that hunting is about much more than killing, and they are following her into it, buoyed by her example (“if she can do it, so can I”) and likely heartened to see that hunting hasn’t turned her into a monster. And that toting a gun doesn’t mean dropping the lipstick.
Is she reversing the decline in hunter numbers? Doubtful - on the whole, they continue to fall. But for every one person who sees her posts and takes steps to begin hunting, there are probably at least a hundred more who see hunting in a more positive light.
That’s important. I don’t need everyone to hunt - my places are crowded enough as it is. I just need non-hunters not to fall for the caricatures peddled by anti-hunting groups, because that’s how hunting gets taken away from us, bit by bit.
And that means it behooves us not to play into those caricatures.
On my hunts, I’m increasingly looking to share other moments I savor: pretty light, the play of colors and shapes in the marsh, sometimes a close-up of feathers. And in the case of the Instagram post that kicked off this whole piece, other messages I want people to hear.
In case you didn’t click over, here’s the text of that post:
If you visit the edges of San Francisco Bay, or any hunted marsh or rice field inland, you will find shotshells and wads at water’s edge. When non-hunters see that, it’s easy for them to assume hunters must be lazy, littering assholes.
No doubt, some are. But the reality is it’s extremely hard to pick up all your spent shells because they float away or get lodged where you can’t see them, and hard to recover any of your wads because they fly so far from the gun.
When hunting inland, I pick up what I can, both my own and other hunters’. But picking up shells on an open bay with strong currents is virtually impossible, because they float away from the boat really fast.
A big, open bay is where we were hunting in the Instagram post. That’s why I was so happy to see our guide and her assistant scooping up spent shells that day.
And that’s why I was very happy to share that with the world in the Instagram post. There are organizations that wouldn’t hesitate to ban all plastics in shotshells. They don’t care that we lack alternatives in any meaningful numbers, in no small part because they think we don’t care about the impacts of plastics in the ocean.
I care, and so do a lot of other hunters I know.
Cynics might wonder if that shotshell pickup was a one-off act of playing to the camera. My first answer is I can’t know what goes on in people’s heads, or what they do when I’m not around.
The more important answer is: It might not matter.
Just about everything you see on social media and a lot of what’s left of hunting television right now is playing to the camera, including yells of “Hyuk hyuk hyuk, that’s what I’m tawlkin’ about” when ducks fall from the sky, huge piles of dead birds, and my favorite, piles of birds arranged to show the number of birds killed - an old Argentina dove-hunting standby.
For every one of those photos or video clips, some people see them and think, That’s cool!, and the next time they hunt, they want to do something just like it. I remember it clearly: The more you’d hear “that’s what I’m tawlkin’ about” on TV, the more you could hear it rippling across the marshes where I hunt. Humans are congenital copycats.
So if people want to play to the camera in a way that encourages respectful behavior, instead of making disrespectful acts seem cool, who am I to complain?
I don’t know how many people might be inspired by me, or my friend Rue, or Hank, when we post photos that tell a more complete story of our experiences afield - when we balance the very real joy of a successful hunt with the genuine respect for animals and nature that we also feel.
But if it’s anything north of zero, that works for me. Evolution in social media happens one person at a time. The perceptions of those who are watching us change at the same speed.
MORE READING (AND WATCHING)
In addition to Jan and Mary’s book, which I highly recommend, here are three more reads on similar or relevant topics:
One Photo, Two Images, a 2016 blog post by Hank about hero shots, prompted by Facebook rejecting an ad for one of his hunting and cooking schools.
Which hunting photo is upsetting? A 2010 blog post of mine about three of my photos that ran in a food magazine, and the surprising (to me) one that really upset people.
Hunting - Philosophy for Everyone, a 2010 book with a variety of essays exploring hunting. Two chapters in particular informed the views you see in today’s post: “Chapter 9: Living with Dead Animals? Trophies as Souvenirs of the Hunt” and “Chapter 11: The Fear of the Lord: Hunting as if the Boss is Watching.” I also reviewed this book in detail on my old blog.
Finally, I had already scheduled this piece when I saw my friend Sage’s Instagram post below about his first deer, a video that encapsulates both the work and the respectful joy of the hunt. I like it.
You and Hank inspire me! Last year at 33 I just stepped into the world of hunting, wanting to learn and become a hunter. You both are really wonderful folks to learn from. This post was really excellent to read and understand deeper the roles we all play in keeping hunting alive and well. Thank you!!
As usual - a great piece Holly - I just went back and looked at the photos from the October 22 Montana pheasant season. A week of camping - seven guys - 12 Griffs - more than our fair share of birds - lots of laughs - and out of 35 photos I selected to keep - only four had birds in them. It's just not that important - it's more about the experience, the camaraderie, the food - and of course - the dogs...