Wary of the self-detonation that often attends opening a Pandora’s box, I vote today we nevertheless review a point and counterpoint raised recently by letter writers to this newspaper’s Opinion pages.
Subject of the missives was the display in recent months of photographs showing Minnesota hunters, some young, with deer they killed. The images are a popular staple for a few weeks each fall on Wednesday’s Star Tribune Outdoors page.
Similarly, during Minnesota’s approximately three months of summer on the same Wednesday Outdoors page, we display photos of Minnesotans with fish they’ve caught. Again, short stories accompany the images detailing how the fish were brought to hand, whether they were released and, oftentimes, who accompanied the lucky anglers, and which lake or river yielded the finned trophies, large or small.
Published photos, per our requirements, must be tasteful, respectful of the displayed fish or deer (or other animal), and appealing in what they portray and how they portray it.
Ultimately, these images convey the life and times of a broad cross-section of Minnesotans, and, correspondingly, many readers find them intensely interesting, regardless whether they hunt or fish. I know this because participation rates are high — we receive far more photos in summer and fall than we can publish in Star Tribune print editions — and because the photos generate considerable positive reader reaction, again, even among people who don’t hunt or fish.
I can also cite decades of observational experience originating in cafes, coffee shops, doctors’ offices and elsewhere, during which I’ve watched readers, regardless whether they were the original purchasers of a Wednesday Star Tribune, page casually through the newspaper’s various sections before finding the Outdoors page with its multiple photos of hunters or anglers and their “catches.”
This page, to my viewing, is generally read intently over many minutes, and stared at a while longer.
Yet everyone is different, and certainly some people find the photos uninteresting or even offensive. Case in point: On Dec. 7, on the Star Tribune Opinion page, Bruce M. Olson of Minneapolis wrote, in part, “The Star Tribune ran photos of children holding weapons over dead animals ... If a group of young neighborhood children stood around displaying weaponry, would you publish it or decry it?”
Four days later on the same page, Dale Nygaard of St. Michael countered, “The young hunters in the photos he laments are not what ails our society ... As a lifelong hunter and father of young hunters, I applaud the Star Tribune for publishing pictures and the stories of young hunters.”
Stipulating again without prejudice that people and their opinions can and do differ, the larger question, and, to me, the most interesting one, is why in the first place hunters and anglers take photos of themselves with their quarry?
One answer, of course, is to record the event. Not just the killing or catching of the animal or fish, but (as with the Star Tribune photo submitters) who was along on the adventure and where and when it took place.
Yet in my view, very few people who are successful afield consciously take snapshots to benefit posterity alone. There just aren’t that many history buffs hanging around. Instead, similar to efforts by ancient boundary waters (and other) peoples who 1,000 years ago and more etched pictographs of animals on rocks, and just as — predating the camera’s invention — painters routinely conveyed the human subjugation of grizzly bears, buffalo and other animals, people, I believe, when given the opportunity, naturally and unthinkingly, seek to connect themselves with nature by, in this case, posing with it.
Throughout time, say until 100 years or so ago, people generally considered “wild” animals in one of two ways: by the food they could provide or the threat they posed. In either case, hunters who reduced animals to table fare or eliminated them as menaces ultimately associated themselves closely — nigh intimately — and (as time passed) respectfully with their prey.
Many American Indians, for instance, believed that to hunt successfully they had to be in harmony with the spirits that control animals. Therefore, before hunting, they often held ceremonies to enhance their bond with animal spirits — however unquantifiable and even indescribable that connection was then and remains today.
To the degree any of this accurately assesses why without an eye blink I took a photo of a whitetail buck I killed this fall with my bow, even though the animal was undistinguished by body or antler size or by any other designation, it doesn’t excuse certain of the genre’s gross misbehaviors, among them: photographs showing disrespect to animals; brag shots in which a hunter’s or angler’s ego seems an image’s main point; and, worst, photos depicting game or fish killed or caught fundamentally to enhance a person’s cravings for attention on social media.
In the end, as ethereal as humans’ relationship is with wild critters and the places they inhabit, debating the value of photographs that attempt to convey that rapport might be less important than ensuring, through resource stewardship, that those and similar images can be taken forever.