Photo Books

Álvaro Laiz Tells the Story of a Siberian Tiger Hunt

March 9, 2018

By Conor Risch

Photographers who pursue stories about historic events face a difficult task. Without action to photograph, they must search for evidence that something happened, find traces of the past in the here and now, and piece together a narrative through images more symbolic than literal.

In creating his new book, The Hunt, Spanish photographer Álvaro Laiz took on the challenge of recalling a remarkable series of events that occurred two decades ago in a region of Siberia, in Russia’s Far East. Through his images, stories gathered from local hunters and a small number of archival photos, Laiz tells the tale of a poacher named Markov, who wounded a large, male Amur tiger but failed to kill it. Over the next three days, the animal hunted Markov down, killed and ate him, then killed another man before a group of hunters lead by a conservationist managed to track down and destroy the tiger.

As Laiz’s book makes clear, however, Markov’s death is just a chapter in a story that stretches back much further. It appears to confirm a legend of the Udege, the people native to this part of Asia, who have traditionally relied on hunting for their livelihood. Rather than hunting the Amur tiger, the Udege have coexisted with them. They believe a hunter who attacks a tiger awakens a vengeful spirit, Amba. It was Amba that killed Markov.

Laiz was living and working in Venezuela in 2012 when he first read The Tiger, author John Vaillant’s bestselling book about the incident. Laiz was captivated by the story and started thinking about how he might tell it through photographs. But he felt it was a “crazy idea” that he wouldn’t have the resources to pursue, so he let it go. Then in 2014 he won funding from Fundación Cerezales. He proposed the tiger project, and the institution agreed to back the work. He also won an IdeasTap and Magnum Photographic Award in 2014, which provided a second round of support for the project.

© Álvaro Laiz

A tiger track in the snow. Udege hunters showed Laiz how to look for information in tiger tracks and other small details. © Álvaro Laiz

Part of the reason he was able to secure funding, Laiz believes, is because the decades-old story remained highly relevant. “It’s man versus nature, which is a very trending topic,” he points out. Economic struggle drove Markov to poaching, and the black market for tigers promised a high reward for the risk he took. Illegal logging in the region had reduced the tigers’ habitat and exposed them to poaching, endangering the species. “It’s kind of a perfect storm for both of them,” Laiz says. “I think it’s a very particular story, but also it’s a story that can resound [with many people] and that can be told time after time and it’s still [significant].”

He made his first trip to the region in 2014, photographing in the national parks set up as wildlife conservation areas. He felt he needed something more than images of the taiga, the boreal forests inhabited by the tigers, however. He returned in the winter of 2015 and spent a month and a half living with local hunters and their families. The portraits he made show Udege and Russian hunters in the taiga and in their homes. They depict tiger conservationists and attack survivors. We see Markov’s widow and read her account of learning of her husband’s death. Several images hint at the animistic beliefs of the Udege. Two pictures show hunters standing with deer skulls held in front of their faces like masks, which makes them appear as if they are deer-men.

There is a collaborative aspect to Laiz’s photographs. His subjects allowed him into their homes or on hunts with them. They posed for his camera, and pointed out small, significant details, such as how tracks in the snow can reveal the size and weight of a tiger and how quickly it’s moving. “When you are shooting these small communities, trust is everything,” Laiz says. He was able to earn people’s confidence by visiting them repeatedly. “It’s not normal—some guy from abroad comes and asks questions and he never comes back,” he explains. “When you do come back you have a different type of relationship” with someone. “They kind of respect you, because they see you are doing your best to tell the story.”

Laiz used a voice recorder while interviewing his subjects. Some told stories were about surviving tiger attacks or losing loved ones, but most of them shared Udege legends and parables. Those stories make up the book’s text. “We needed to balance the story somehow,”  Laiz says, “between facts and fantasy, between facts and fiction, between what you can see and what you cannot.”

He worked with designer Ramon Pez to create the book, which uses different paper materials and gatefolds to create an experience that encourages the viewer to look closely at the details (see a video preview of the book, here). “This project is called ‘The Hunter,’ but the book is called The Hunt, because both the designer and I wanted to make it kind of a game for the viewer.”

Laiz’s focus on telling details reveals something fundamental about the lives of people in the region. “In my experience, details make the difference between surviving or not, between making it to the next day [or not],” Laiz explains. He felt the Udege had a different worldview than he’d ever encountered. “They are not the predator, the tiger is, so they have to live with that.” He observed how their vulnerability and their relationship to their environment informed their legends and lore. “When you get to know you are not the top predator in the area, you start thinking another way. You can hunt, but you can also be hunted.”

Want more PDN? Click here to sign up for our email newsletter and get the week’s top stories delivered straight to you.

PDN’s 30 2018

Carl Johnson’s New Book Examines Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Christina Seely’s “Terra Systema” Contemplates Earth’s Ecological Systems