David Chancellor isn’t a hunter. And he didn’t set out to glorify hunting—nor did he set out to find easy answers. In 2008, the London-born photographer who lives and works out of South Africa set out to explore the messy, conflicted relationship between man, wildlife, and the industry that connects everything in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the first of three books, the award-winning photographer documents perhaps his most contentious subject: the tourist trophy hunter.
Inspired by Peter Beard’s harrowing photos of elephants in Kenya, George Orwell’s "Shooting an Elephant," and the iconic 19th-century portraits of European aristocrats, Hunters is alternately gorgeous and unsettling (you can donate to its Kickstarter project here). We talked to Chancellor about why the conflict between man and wildlife is so difficult to discuss, what it’s like to witness someone getting mauled by a leopard, and whether there’s even such a thing as sustainable hunting.
Co.Exist: You say you want to explore the complex relationship between man and wildlife. Why start with trophy hunters?
Chancellor: When you live in Africa, you become very aware of the commercial value of iconic wildlife. So I wanted to look at how you put a price on an animal. Why do you put a price on an animal? And does the price you put on the animal actually ensure that the animal stays alive rather than becoming extinct? Because there is no price on that.
Hunters and conservationists often find themselves at odds in regard to the value of animals. To what extent do they want the same thing?
Well, hunters will always, always say—it’s their mantra—that hunting and conservation go hand in hand. And conservationists will always say that that’s rubbish: You can’t possibly hunt and be a conservationist. This is why the work has been such a battle. I wanted to try to walk down the fence and just have a look at both sides. I wanted to talk to the hunters and talk to the conservationists, and try to produce a body of work that looks at both.
For example, the hunting of the elephant in Zimbabwe through campfire is arguably one of the finest examples of sustainable hunting, if there is such a thing. But given the opportunity to hunt a leopard in a zoo, there are possibly people who would do that, because it allows them to still have the trophy and the gain and the ego of hunting a leopard. I didn’t want to look at those individuals and examples of so-called "canned hunting." I wanted to look at the tourist trophy hunters who are connecting with the environment in some way.
And who are the hunters you photographed?
What I’ve observed for all of these people is that they are in all cases incredibly driven, incredibly strong. I would hedge against saying selfish, but definitely driven: hedge-fund managers, trauma surgeons, doctors. But I’ve also documented mechanics. They are very different from hunters of the 19th century. But in the photographs, I wanted to reference those portraits of 19th-century European aristocracy.
Where did you shoot?
I’ve looked at particular animals in particular countries. The most extreme, hands-on way to hunt leopard is with dogs, and at the time, Namibia was the place to go and do that. It’s since been stopped. The gentleman I hunted leopard with was a U.S.-based hedge-fund manager. I asked him afterward why he’d wanted to hunt a leopard and he said he had hunted pretty much everything else he could hunt and he had the ability and the wherewithal to do pretty much anything he wanted and risk his life in any way he wanted to, and he felt that hunting leopard on foot in Namibia with dogs was as near he could get to challenging himself and his life. So it was completely pitting himself against nature.
There are likely plenty of examples of man doing this, but it sounds like the hunter is putting himself in self-imposed danger: Whether the circumstances are artificial, the threat is real.
You’re doing exactly that. This is why the bigger project is wildlife-human conflict. Now, whether that conflict is self-induced or whether that conflict is unavoidable depends very much on the individual, and very much on the animal. A leopard in most cases will avoid human contact, so when a human goes out to instigate contact and conflict, your end result is very quickly turned around. The leopard is coming for you.
Were there times you were frightened for your life?
Beyond frightened. Leopard, particularly. There’s a portrait of a leopard hunter and a portrait of a huntsman with a lynx over his shoulder, the same huntsman who’s holding the leopard. Shortly after I took that portrait, the hunting party was attacked by a leopard. Both of the huntsmen were very badly mauled. The hunter tried to shoot the leopard, missed the leopard, and shot the tracker. That’s one instance. That’s why I initially thought that it would be fine to sit in the vehicle, but you can’t. And in all cases, I have a camera and everyone else has a rifle. You can’t question it because it’s your choice to be there, but it’s mind-numbingly frightening and it’s raw.
So being that close is the only way for the photos to communicate what you want them to?
Yes. You and I can have these conversations, but the only reason we’re having these conversations is because those portraits stand up and intrigue you and you want to know more. The only way you can do that is to be on the shoulder of the person who wants to do it. The goal is also to produce a body of work that doesn’t necessarily turn off the viewer. It doesn’t turn off the hunter who’s seen all this before and thinks it’s boring—or the conservationist who goes: "Well this confirms everything I thought. This is disgusting." There is so much work that I could put out that is utterly appalling, but is pointless because you won’t engage with people.
And what are the next stages beyond hunters?
All of the body of work is wildlife-human conflict. And what I really want to look at next is man’s effort to facilitate game for his own enjoyment. So I’m currently looking at the movement of game, translocation of game, within Africa: setting up of reserves, moving of game into those reserves, the infrastructure that needs to be put in place so that people can view and share game, and the concept of game being wild in a controlled environment. And included in that has to be conflict such as poaching, wildlife human conflict, hearing pastoral communities such as farmers in Kenya and Tanzania and how they deal with that. It’s looking at the end result of putting a value on animals.
Learn more at the Hunters Kickstarter page.