Sunday, January 10, 2010

Which hunting photo is upsetting?

When you spend much of your free time in the pursuit and preparation of wild game, it's so easy to forget how the rest of the world sees meat. Then along come the little reminders.

Case in point: Boyfriend and I have a story (his) and photos (mine) in the current issue of Edward Behr's the Art of Eating. The article, "Duck Hunt: In Search of California's Perfect Wild Waterfowl," is about how much duck flavors can vary not just from one species to the next, but from one county to the next.

I've worked with Behr before and I know he likes gritty realism in the photos he publishes - none of that highly polished stuff you find in most food magazines - so I selected photos for this story with that in mind.

In addition to two fairly benign hunter-and-dog shots from the field, I gave him several fairly graphic shots from the picking shed at the Salinas Club in the Grasslands. These are the three he chose:

Even I've got to admit the second one is kinda grisly. But the Art of Eating has a really sophisticated foodie audience - "Everyday with Rachael Ray" this ain't. And I've found that non-hunting foodies tend to understand better than most other non-hunters I've encountered that meat comes from formerly living animals.

So when the issue finally came out, can you guess which shot bothered some of the readers?

The third one, of the dog with the duck in its mouth.

Now I should be clear that no one complained about the morality of hunting or eating meat. Good Lord, the cover story for this issue is about "The Fair of the Fattened Ox" in Italy, which culminates in the prize-winning oxen being led off to slaughter. These readers aren't anti-meat.

But apparently some people weren't prepared to see that lifeless duck in the dog's mouth. I think it was just too close to the moment of death.

Or, perhaps, more accurately, too close to its last moment of life.

While this was the last photo I expected to upset anyone, I think I can make sense of it.

Industrial agriculture has sheltered most of us from the reality that our meat comes from individual living creatures. We no longer raise meat animals in our back yards; our neighbors no longer raise them down the street. They are fattened on vast farms and slaughtered in big facilities that most of us never have to see.

While we can intellectually grasp that meat comes from individual animals, most of us don't have to face the reality behind that fact. It's just like how we understand that people go hungry all over the world every day, but we don't get upset about it until we see the photo of the starving child, with his distended belly and flies on his face. Then it becomes more real.

And even the foodies, who are among the most aware people in our country in terms of where food comes from, aren't immune to the shock that accompanies the reality of individual death.

It's one of the things that makes me grateful that I hunt. I saw most of the meat I eat when it was still a living animal. I apologized to many of these animals for taking their lives, or thanked them, or both. And I don't take one single bite for granted.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Gretchen Steele said...

Holly this was a most interesting and enjoyable read for me. I have the same quandries in my work. And oddly/coincidentally enough the photos of the dogs with the ducks on retrieve or handing them off have been the ones that I've caught the most grief over too. I've done some rather grisly how to series but luckily those audiences were better prepared for for what cleaning a snapping turtle for instance really looks like LOL
I often have to do a good bit reviewing before submitting because what seems as you said gritty and realistic to me could be offensive to some.
Particularly enjoyed this read! Keep up the great work!

Phillip said...

Funny what sets folks off. I don't think I'd ever have expected that pic to do it either.

Curiouser and curiouser...

native said...

I believe that the answer to that question Holly would be that people just simply do not want to look at their furry, cuddly Rover laying serenely at their feet beside the fire place.
And then let the thought enter their minds that Rover would eat "Them" in a heartbeat if he was hungry enough!

This is why (and rightly so) there is so much pouring of outrage and confusion when a dog attacks and kills a human amongst us.
Again, the thought of the family dog turning upon it's master is unconscionable.

Also, in the disney movies, dogs talk and have all the same feelings and emotions as we humans do. And the thought of retrieving a Duck with ones mouth is rather repugnant, isn't it?

Again, just an observation from a poor ol' dumb country boy.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't surprise me at all. Non-hunting friends and family who see photos of our dogs retrieving birds are frequently dismayed. "Why is your dog biting that bird?" is a common reaction to this photo -

Their favorites are usually the ones showing a bird that has escaped the gun and the dog.

Matt Mullenix said...

Another thoughtful post! Interesting that the dog would inspire the remarks, but perhaps it was as much from the interesting gestures in the photo as from the dead bird? There is something striking but difficult to convey about the hand on the dog's head and the dog's body language. Don't you think?

About apologies for taking game, my personal practice is to feel regret only when I've done it poorly or caused needless harm. I am always grateful.

Julia said...

I think I know what the real problem is - dog cooties on gourmet food!!! LOL :)

What a great post, Holly, and the pictures you chose for the article are a beautiful representation of harvesting your own food. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis - most people, even the most enlightened, don't really want to know where their food comes from, even when they think they do. Even as a hunter and small farmer, I am no exception. The romance of hand-raising meat birds compared to the reality of plucking their feathers post-mortem or putting them in ziploc bags in the freezer are two completely different things. It doesn't necessarily get easier in time, but it does make me more enlightened and conscious of what and how I eat.

I made some homemade cheese last week, and used it on homemade pizza last night. It was interesting that I was concerned about finishing the portion I'd served myself to eat versus if it had been store-bought or delivered pizza, because I had labor and love invested in what we were eating at the most basic level.

Again - great, thought provoking post, as always!

Josh said...

You know I rarely say things like this but, that's weird... that's just weird.

ba said...

wow, I'm speechless, and sad. The problem (and this isn't revealing anything new to people on this blog) is that people are comfortable being VERY distanced from their food source, and that goes for omnivores AND vegetarians. We're content if we see a stand at the local farmer's market, or protein from Whole Paycheck. Honestly, how many of us vet out our "organic" farmers, too?

As I became an adult, I realized that hunting brought me much closer to what I ate. It helped make me healthier - honoring my "kill" with good preparation and quality ingredients taught me a lot about other foods and inspired an "inner chef". It helped me understand the passion and connection that vegans (and some vegetarians) strive for. Living in a very "hippie" area (Boulder, CO), I'm always amazed at the level of acceptance I get from vegans. They don't necessarily agree with meat or animal-kills, but they respect the fact that I do it myself and I'm willing to do the work. Likewise, I'm often stunned at the wrinkled nose of disdain I get from "regular folks" who act like they care about healthy food yet conveniently ignore and avoid confronting the realities of where/how their food comes to the table.

The meta problem is (getting to our society in general) is that those that don't bother to be knowledgeable about something still feel the duty to tell those of us who care passionately about something how to do it. It's a complete, active, denial of responsibility. We've created a general society that is proud of its ignorant voice.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I'm very surprised that this particular photo would offend someone more than the picture of the gentleman taking the scissors to the duck's body.

I guess it's because, as you mentioned, that that particular photo is more connected to the time of the death of the duck, moreso than the scissor photo is. And also because a lot of people have a hard time picturing a dog being so involved with an animal's death.


Tovar Cerulli said...

Great post, Holly.

It fits hand in glove with a post I'm about to put up about an experience a friend of mine had recently. I'll definitely include a link to your post.


Holly Heyser said...

Gretchen: I think people are used to seeing animals as meat, so even with heads attached, it's somehow more OK.

Native: That is a really interesting perspective I hadn't thought of - about them seeing the dog that way. Thanks for adding that to the mix!

ArdenwoodPatti: Beautiful photo you linked to, and interesting that you had the same experience with that one. Strangely enough, I too really enjoy the ducks that get away from me - particularly the ones that so completely outsmart me that I can't even raise my gun to shoot at them. And I've been known to say out loud, when I see ducks flying toward other hunters, "Don't go there - you'll get shot!"

Matt: I'm glad you noticed the hand - that is one of my favorite things about that shot for reasons I haven't quite understood. And when I apologize, it's not really regret - just an acknowledgement that I just took their life away.

BA: You're surrounded by some interesting vegans. I occasionally get that from vegetarians, but not so much from vegans (though Boyfriend did get a grudging "I have less trouble with how you do it than with how most meat eaters do it." I, too, am sad that this is the society we've created. And I don't think it's the least bit sustainable.

Tovar: Can't wait to read your post!

Holly Heyser said...

And oh yeah, Henhouse: LOL. Great call! I know of course that you're joking, but that does touch on another funny thing about nonhunters is the extreme fear of germs from wild things and mouths. I used to feel it too. Now it doesn't faze me at all.

And I love what you said about the cheese, because it's how I feel about all meat since I started hunting: Once I order meat at a restaurant, I will not leave any on my plate - I will not waste it. Even if that means no room to finish the fries...

jryoung said...

It's amazing the reactions that hunting draws. I was recently having dinner with some of my very foodie friends, veal osso buco and foie gras eating, sustainable agriculture foodie friends. They inquired about recent pig hunt of mine and I asked if they wanted to watch the video on YouTube. I was shocked when they very uncomfortable watching it. Good shot, clean kill, DOA when we got to her in 30 seconds and they were almost abhorred that I killed her. Yet, they are anxious to try the meat.

They aren't necessarily anti-hunting, but as much of foodies they are I think they are quite remove from the harvesting of meat process and would like to keep it that way.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to one that got away. I suggest using the slideshow view (upper right corner of the Flickr page)

Non-hunting friends and family give this a big thumbs up.

Holly Heyser said...

Wow, beautiful photography.

But I hope they're not giving the thumbs-up while gnoshing on chicken wings...

Chad Love said...

Hmmm...maybe they just assumed the dog was along not as an integral part of the hunt, but rather for warm, fuzzy companionship?

Come on people, didn't any of you see Marley and Me?

Everyone knows dogs, when not corrupted by the wanton but regrettably inevitable natural bloodlust of their human masters, are gentle souls who prefer frisbees and bandanas to gunfire and perforated duck carcasses.

It's just not in their nature, and therefore disturbing to be confronted with imagery depicting our deliberate warping of said nature.


Holly Heyser said...

Chad, you're right. How silly of us!

DarrenM said...

It's funny, I think pictures of working dogs doing what they love and what they were bred to do are some of the most powerful and beautiful pro-animal pictures out there.

That's a dog that's happy to do his job of delivering the duck to his owner. Mission accomplished! I wonder if the photo would cause the same consternation in Dog Fancy magazine?

Jason @ International Sporting said...

I pegged which one it was before you even said it. People have very skewed views in our society.

They may look at the first photo and not be concerned about the butchering because they eat meat. They see that other photo and all they can think is that it's "animal cruelty" or something. Because that's a hot button issue in our society.

It's no secret our society has become detached from the ways of the land. very unfortunate.

There is a good book called "The Inland Ground" by Richard Rhoades. It's a series of essays about the middle west and oddly they seem to form some type of eulogy of what used to be.

The Hunter's Wife said...

From the non-hunter of the group, the second photo bothered me the most. And I'm a lover of meat. Unlike most, I just have issues with the blood thing. I know where most of my meat comes from but I just can't get over the whole death/blood thing.

I thought nothing of the dog photo mostly because I see it as a hunting dog and that's what they do. Those that have issues, most likely are those that can't actually relate to the hunting of it.

Stacey Olson said...

And they grasp the idea that fluffy, their baby dog who sleeps in their bed could or would be great work once again Holly

Anonymous said...

Regarding ardenwoodpatti's sequence of Pete: Before Pete I hadn’t been upland hunting in 25 years. I didn’t know a blind retrieve from a blind alley and I certainly wouldn’t get up at 5 AM to drive 2 hours to spend the day throwing dead ducks for other similarly afflicted persons. Pete and his grandson Zip(!!!) started me down that slippery slope and I’m so much the richer for it. Because of Pete, I got invited to go hunting (Can Pete hunt with us on Saturday? Yeah, you can come to if you bring him.) And whether the job was finding the birds, bringing back the ones we hit or sitting around analyzing the misses, there’s no one I’d rather have at my side and I miss him so much.

I feel sorry for the people that were offended of your beautiful picture of the dog delivering to hand. They have missed so much.

It’s a privilege to share your life with someone like Pete. May you be similarly blessed.

Holly Heyser said...

Thank you, Ardenwoodjoe! A dog is somewhere in my future - I'm just not sure when.

I'm with you on feeling sorry for people who were bothered by that photo, though I'm sure they wouldn't welcome my pity. I myself wasn't the least bit prepared for how important hunting would become in my life until I did it. I really had no idea how meaningful it would be.

Cork Graham said...

Hey, Holly --
Isn't it amazing? I've just chalked it all up to the automatic PC response that has overcome our society in the last 30 years. As a fellow photographer, you might appreciate this metaphoric memory:

I was at a three days workshop run by National Geographic and led by the then new Photo Director Tom Kennedy. I brought my portfolio that mainly revolved around my interests at the time: fashion and combat.

When I opened my portfolio to this famous German photographer, so famous I can't remember his name now (but was impressive at the time), made the comment that the shot was so cliched. That is showed the ra-ra, oorah of war. This was the shot:

The funny thing was that it was noted at AP, the agency I was stringing for in El Salvador, as the best shot for Christmas 1985.

The scene was also interesting because the other photographers were wide-eyed, their pupils dilated, an umaskable physiological sign of interest in what they were looking at, but they were almost like zombies, nodding in agreement, yes, yes, this is to much in favour of war--all because the teacher said it was.

Ironically, to other photographers capturing the war in El Salvador, it was loved it because it was honest. There is bravado in war. It's why young men go off to "prove" themselves. There's even a romance about war: every generation is sure to write about it romantically (the comraderie that those who haven't been in combat don't understand), even when they're showing its horror.

Yet, when viewed in the antiseptic environment of education, and what's politically correct, an accurate depiction of fact of war is poo-pooed as cliched and ugly. And it was funny what the "famous" photographer suggested, as this was a workshop, to take more pictures of women carrying babies with a chopper above shooting down at them...this photographer had never covered a war in his life, and yet, artistically he was already picturing what was an acceptable picture of what war him.

Like those who commented on the duck in the retrivers mouth, a gorgeous and true, and unposed piece of journalism, it seems that the war against political correctness is an uphill battle against the preconcieved ideas of how death and meat is supposed to be, by those who have such a removed understanding this reality.

Keep up the great writing!


Galen Geer said...

Hi Holly,
A really good read and something that I would like to reprint in a future issue of "The Pines Review." Heck, I'll even pay you a few dollars for it (not many, I'm always broke).
Hunting and fishing photos and the issues which surround them is a topic that outdoor writers and photographers are always being forced to deal with.
I need to stop over and ready your blog more often, I always enjoy it. Your students are really lucky to have you teaching them. glg

Jon Roth said...

Holly, the most offensive part of these photos is the big, fat spoony bill staring at you in the second photo! The horror of it all!!! LOL. Seriously, I don't get the problem with the bottom photo, but then again my dog helps me put meat on the table every time we go hunting so I'm not the audience to ask about this. If it weren't for my dog I would lose more game and there would be more wounded ducks that suffer needlessly than with him. He is a tool, a resource, and an integral part of why I hunt.

LNicole said...

Excellent post. I was just thinking of this recently. People find hunting to be cruel, but don't think anything of inhumane conditions of factory animals or that they are killed for food because all they see is the package on the meat counter.