Images are our most powerful forms of storytelling, whether it’s a picture from a social media post today or a cave painting from 44,000 years ago. They are compelling tools that can transcend the barriers of both language and time.
A single photo can portray an entire narrative depending on what it contains and how the scene is framed. When we see an image of a venison roast, cooked medium rare and proudly displayed on a platter decorated with evergreen branches and empty cartridges scattered unobtrusively in the background, it tells a story.
That same story can be told in the image of a proud hunter, smiling as they kneel in the forest, holding a recently killed deer with its tongue lolling out and covered in blood.
Both pictures describe an identical experience, yet both invoke a completely different set of emotions and messages, especially to those unfamiliar with the tale.
AS A WRITER AND A PHOTOGRAPHER, I spend a lot of my time trying to portray the full experience of the hunt. If you follow my social media feed, you will see countless images and stories of my time spent outdoors and the meals that I make, though I rarely post those classic grip-and-grin harvest photos.
My followers include an interesting assortment of both hunters and nonhunters, and recently I was contacted by one of the latter. They mentioned how much they were inspired by my photos and words that so clearly showed my deep connection to – and love of – the land and the animals that I hunt. While I’ve always found personal inspiration in sharing my hunting experiences with the wider world, this comment made me pause for a moment, because it emphasized the importance of how I shared them when it came to hunting’s social acceptance by others.
The irony in that last statement is that I should understand better than anyone the value in how hunting is portrayed. I’ve spent a significant portion of my life on the outside of the hunting community looking in while also trying to comprehend the realities of where my food comes from and what it truly means to eat meat.
As a former vegan hiker turned adult-onset hunter, I tend to have a different perspective than most when it comes to the depiction of hunting. I understand simultaneously what it means to revel in the success of the harvest while passing horrified judgment at the gory details of the kill.
As a result, the message I have worked hard to convey is that there is a real danger in failing to tell the full story. The future of hunting is in large part a fight for its social acceptance, and whether we choose to acknowledge that fact or not doesn’t change the danger of the situation. When we portray the complete experience of what it means to hunt, we give a less negatively biased picture, one that becomes both understandable and – most significantly – relatable, showing why hunting is important and why it needs to remain so for the future.
HUNTING IS A HUMAN INHERITANCE, and in many cases a cultural one too. It is a way of keeping us honest about the hard realities of eating; of maintaining a connection with the land and the animals that feed us. Even without filling a tag, there is something that continues to draw us outdoors in pursuit of wild game year after year.
Yet hunting is about so much more than the sum of its success – it is about community, friendship, reconnecting with nature and, most importantly, food. These aspects form the warp and the weft that weave together the finished tapestry of hunting. They are what we need to include whenever we talk about it, because while the experience of hunting is often deeply personal, its portrayal is very public.
The outside world is watching us, ready to judge something that they have forgotten how to understand. Our job as hunters is to remind them of the importance of it, that hunting has both a present relevance and an enduring future. It is humanity’s lodestone, emphasizing our place in the food chain and the sometimes-sordid truth of eating.
Community. Culture. The outdoors. Food.
These are some of the elements we need to remember to show, whether it’s through words or images. They not only provide the complete picture of the hunt, but they give us a common ground for making hunting relatable to the general public.
A hiker can understand the draw of the incredible vistas and amazing wildlife encounters that are often experienced during a hunt. A foodie can relate to – or even get excited about – the creative ways of utilizing wild game in the kitchen. A person who has suffered from post-traumatic stress can understand how a veteran might find healing through hunting in the outdoors.
Hunting has always been a way of bringing like-minded people together, but with the right voice, it can be used to connect us with nonhunters as well. We need them as our allies, now more than ever.
MY PERSONAL STORY OF HUNTING has woven together all of these elements, bringing me into contact with so many people that I might not otherwise have met and providing countless experiences that I would not otherwise have obtained.
My journey as a hunter has been a river awash with the generosity of so many souls. It has shown me a true sense of community – through mentorship, help processing the harvest, and even assistance in trying to find the animal in the first place. Those acts of kindness, as well as the lasting friendships formed, are gifts that I will always treasure.
Hunting has taught me how to open my eyes and engage in the natural world on a level I was never able to achieve as a hiker. It has brought me to the most beautiful landscapes and given me the most heart-pounding wildlife encounters. Because of my time as a hunter, I am better at reading the stories of animals on the landscape, and therefore more able to take pleasure in my time spent out on it.
Hunting helped me to find the answer to the question of where my food came from. It taught me creativity in the kitchen and forced me to become a better cook as a way of honoring what I harvested. It also taught me to be less wasteful and more thoughtful in my eating.
Though hunting was never my personal cultural heritage, I have enjoyed seeing that aspect in others. When I view images or hear stories of parents teaching their children to hunt, it brings me deep joy, made even more priceless by the understanding of what an incredible gift that knowledge truly is.
Most importantly, hunting has taught me humility, and that success is never a guarantee. Hunting is most definitely not a trip to the grocery store.
THESE ARE THE ELEMENTS THAT make the story of hunting complete, and while we should absolutely celebrate the successes of our hunts, they should not be the only aspect that we tell. When we limit the story of hunting to a single moment of such a complex experience, we not only do ourselves and the animals that we harvest a disservice, but we put the very future of hunting at risk.
In a time where urbanization continues to increase, and people’s connection to their food grows ever more distant from reality (and ever more tied to what they perceive on social media and TV), there is danger in failing to convey the full experience of the hunt.
When my social media feed fills up every autumn with image after image of gory grip-and-grins, I can easily understand why the outside world considers hunting a bloodthirsty sport and the antithesis of a fair chase endeavor. Have we done anything to convince them otherwise?
Each season, I can count on one hand the number of hunters who talk about – and more importantly show – the other aspects of hunting, regardless of whether a tag has been filled. When I think back over my own past hunting seasons, what comes to mind tends to be the collection of experiences that went into it – not necessarily the end result.
I have often heard other hunters make the comment, “Why bother? Nothing we say or do will change the minds of these non-hunters.” Yet I, along with many others, am living proof that minds can be changed – it simply takes the right approach. The more people we sway to our side, regardless of whether they hunt, are the more advocates we have to fight for its future.
Just this past month, my husband interviewed a woman on his podcast who is a nonhunter who fully supports hunting in both America and in Africa. She not only supports it, but she works tirelessly alongside us hunters to fight for its future. We need more advocates like that on our side, and the best way we can achieve that is to inspire them through our own stories and images.
MY POINT HERE IS NOT TO SAY that you need to be a professional photographer or writer to change the way the world views hunting – far from it, in fact. It is merely a reminder of the need to show the full experience …
More pictures of the incredible vistas you’ve seen while glassing for bear and elk …
Tales of laughter around the campfire at the end of the day …
The meals you made with the animal that you harvested …
And yes, even taking the time to capture slightly less gory harvest images.
Remember that every picture tells a story, a story that can either aid the perception and therefore the future of hunting … or hinder it.
Simple changes in how we tell our hunting stories can have huge impacts in how hunting is perceived. Even through the distance of urbanization and even through the distorted lens of social media, we have the ability to make hunting not merely understandable but socially acceptable. We have the power to help ensure its safety for the future.
So the next time you talk about hunting, ask yourself this: What story do you want your words and images to tell the world?
Editor’s note: Author Jillian Garrett is a hunter, farmer and conservationist living in Northeast Washington. She and her husband operate a regenerative farm with a focus on wildlife conservation through responsible land stewardship.Jillian’s writing and photography have also appeared in Sports Afield, Bear Hunting Magazine and Blue Ridge Farmer Magazine. A member of First Hunt Foundation, she remains passionate about the importance of mentorship within the hunting community.