Trophy Case: David Chancellor's Hunters

By Dzana Tsomondo

© David Chancellor/Institute
"Huntress with Wildebeast, Namibia." Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

A giraffe unspools, the lower half of its body politely seated while the impossible neck corkscrews into the foreground, its head unceremoniously resting in the dirt. The hunter reclines in the grass, nearly leaning against the corpse, a cigarette in his mouth, his facial expression suggestive of post-coital ennui. His camouflage jacket is open. A rifle with a scope sits in the crook of his arm, the weapon’s stock leveraged against his thigh. It’s a beautiful day.

is an arresting exploration of tourist trophy hunting in southern Africa by British photographer David Chancellor. Primarily relying on portraiture, both in the field and in the hunters’ homes and trophy rooms, Chancellor delves into the controversial and lucrative subculture. Despite the fact that his camera never shies from blood, the gore is at a notable minimum. Instead, the tension that fills each frame is drawn from his subjects—the foreign hunters, their families, the local guides and the very land to which they have come seeking their prey.  

Some years ago, I spoke with a photojournalist about his time in war-torn West Africa and he admitted a certain ambivalence about his work: Although he was there to photograph black men with guns, he was also keenly aware of how charged those images are. After spending time with Chancellor’s book, his conundrum seemed similar. After all, there is little iconography more “charged” than that of the white hunter in Africa. Race, colonialism, post-colonialism, developing world tourism, conservation, exploitation, violence and masculinity, and the question of “ethical hunting,” are all issues that come into play. It is to Chancellor’s credit that he tackles this subject without expressly addressing any of these “issues.”

“I was very conscious of the fact that, if I wasn’t careful, I would produce work that would just turn people off,” Chancellor elaborates in a phone interview. “Those people who were very much against this type of hunting … would just see something that confirmed exactly what they thought [about the subject] and say ‘I’m not interested,’” he explains. “I tried as much as possible to produce images that engaged and drew people in, so they would ask more and more questions.” He points to one photo in particular as an example: “Huntress with buck.”

A girl, somewhere in that netherworld of early adolescence, sits astride a bay horse. Her back is straight. The sky is blue but clouds are racing into the frame above a mountain range behind her. The horse is a deep, ruddy chestnut. Her light-blue eyes stare through the camera. There is an antelope slung limply in front of her, hanging from the horse’s broad shoulders. Her shirt is khaki, lightly creased and buttoned to the top, a slip of pale throat visible above the collar. The grass is yellow and green, sparse in the foreground but rolling thickly in the distance. The antelope has a bloodless bullet hole in its right breast, little more than a furrowing of its hair. One hand holds the elegant horn lightly, pulling the lolling head up and against our rider’s leg.

Chancellor points to “Huntress with buck” as an example of exactly when and how he successfully navigates the minefields surrounding these images and creates space for dialogue. His goal is “to gently draw somebody in to what is a very beautiful image, in very beautiful light, of a very beautiful young girl … You are drawn into it and it is only then that you see the animal. Then you question why she has an animal over the horse, then you see the hole in the animal, then you realize the animal is already dead and by then, you are already engaged with that image and that work.” Chancellor explains, “Without having a subtler approach and a respect … I don’t think people who disagreed with [trophy hunting] would have engaged with it the way that they have.”

Chancellor has never hunted in his life, he says. But Hunters is the result of his longstanding interest in the conflict between animals and humans. It started when he wondered what lay behind the high fences that surround game parks in his adopted home of South Africa, and who exactly these “elderly gentlemen in various forms of camouflage, coming and going in airport lounges across the continent” were. Eventually, Chancellor set out to satiate his own curiosity. Finding the answers to those questions would eventually take him to five different African countries, each with their own niches in the big-game hunting industry. He found that hunters were equally specialized, seeking a specific type of game under particular circumstances: elephants and hippos through the Zimbabwean “sustainable hunting” co-operative CAMPFIRE; hunting leopards with dogs in Namibia; lions in the Kalahari Desert; and so on.

The “why” and “how” of this little-seen world were important to Chancellor, but equally, if not more, interesting was the “who.” “While [in the nineteenth century] these white hunters might have [brought] along European aristocracy to hunt and there was a glamour to it, here you have the moneyed elite … hedge fund managers, dentists, doctors, surgeons,” Chancellor explains. In the process of trying to find out the “who,” he learned quickly that he couldn’t hang back in the Land Rover—he needed to be next to them as the hunt unfolded. He needed to capture their first poses with their trophies, and conversely, he needed to approach these men and women in their own private spaces as well. His pictures of aging hunters seated in their cavernous trophy rooms are no less compelling than those in the thick of the savannah, gunpowder in the air.

Related Article:

David Chancellor Photo Gallery 

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