Photo Assignment: Chicks with Guns
You don’t kill animals. You harvest them.
Not The Obvious Choice: If you think about it, I’m a very odd choice to shoot a project like this. I didn’t speak the language of outdoor sports, especially hunting! In my experience, affinity matters. For instance, I was once up for a commercial account for a golf accessory business. I didn’t get the account simply because I didn’t golf. Everyone that worked on that account had to be a golfer. In retrospect, that made a lot of sense. How could I possibly add anything to a golf shoot if I didn’t know the first thing about golf?
Now we come to “Chicks with Guns” : I’ve never hunted and have only fished on occasion. I’ve always lived in the city. Truthfully, I’ve never really understood why people liked hunting. It seemed barbaric to me. And based on where and how I was raised, it made sense for me to think that way.
They’re not guns. They’re firearms.
A Different Kind of “Shoot”: I fancy myself a wannabe video producer. Since the middle of last summer, I had been traveling to Maine every weekend, working on a peripherally related spec video project to flex my producer skills. When a client asked me to shoot a calendar for The Maine Sportsman Magazine, I didn’t hesitate! I thought, at the very least, the project would subsidize my gas expenses.
I also knew this type of project is why I got into the business of being a photographer in the first place. I wanted experiences that were both outside my sphere of knowledge and/or outside my comfort zone. And besides, this was the Miss Main Sportsman Competition—“Chicks with Guns”! What could be wrong with a photo-essay like that? Little did I know I was in for the learning experience of my life!
I’m A Liberal from Connecticut: “Hi! I’m Steve Marsel. I’m a liberal from Connecticut, and I’ve never fired a rifle.” Though I never actually said that, those words rang in my head during each call I had with the finalists of the Miss Maine Sportsman Competition to introduce myself for an upcoming shoot. Their way of life was alien to me: hunting, fishing, stuffing. Words not found in my daily vocabulary. But when I opened my mind and put my preconceived notions to rest, what I discovered about these “alien” people taught me a great deal about myself and my world view.
Ballots, Businesses, Bears, Oh My!: This project came at a critical time in the state of Maine. A binding question on the November ballot might have banned the use of bait, dogs or traps to hunt bears in the State of Maine – forever! Animal-rights groups had been streaming in money from out of state for months. The “bear-baiting” question was on everyone’s mind.
I discovered that thousands of people made their living in Maine as registered guides. For those of you who don’t know, a registered guide is “any person who receives any form of remuneration for his services in accompanying or assisting any person in the fields, forests or on the waters or ice within the jurisdiction.” There are more than 4,500 registered guides for hunting and fishing in the state. More people than I ever imagined.
Against the Odds: Old school hunters were dying off, and sporting camps and lodges found it difficult to make ends meet in the modern world. For one, the competition for American sporting activities is staggering, leaving hunting and fishing desperate to keep up. For another, gas prices (until recently) had been increasing over the past few years, which really put a crimp in many businesses. It became harder and harder for sporting camps to remain viable businesses. So many of their customers drive from other states.
What the average person doesn’t understand about the hunting industry is how many people travel from out of state to hunt and, more importantly, the economic stimulus their travels provide. Hunters and fishermen that drive up from other states usually stop along the way at the Kittery Trading Post or L.L. Bean or the like and spend money. Of course, many of those hunters come for the bear hunt.
A registered guide told me that even prior to election day, when the referendum would finally come to a vote, hunters, who would normally leave there trophy bears with taxidermists in Maine, were taking their bears back with them to their home states. “Why?” I asked him. He explained that the out-of-state hunters didn’t know if they would ever come back to Maine. Even before the first ballot was cast, the state was losing money.
Both Sides of the Coin: Then there’s the larger issue, which is the really big educational concern for me. Most Americans have no idea where their food comes from, and many just don’t care. They think it’s cruel that hunters bait bears in the woods and shoot them. Perhaps these people think that their meat appears out of thin air on a piece of Styrofoam wrapped in plastic. “Blue-state” Americans (seemingly) refuse to make the connection with the food they eat in restaurants or put on their tables and where the food actually comes from. And I must admit that I was one of those liberal blue-state people. I thought that hunting was cruel.
Let me make something clear: the bears in the woods have a much better chance of surviving than any animal waiting to be killed in a slaughterhouse somewhere, such as farm-bred cattle or chickens. The animals we line up in narrow stalls without giving an inch to turn their neck—they stand no chance of surviving! I think that my liberal brethren never think of that. The reason they don’t think of it is because they don’t want to.
Hunting and fishing in America is a birthright. It’s how this country was settled. And it is narrow and shortsighted to think hunting and fishing as simply cruel and unusual punishments. Especially when you consider the slaughterhouses and huge corporate farms that treat animals cruelly as a matter of course day-in and day-out. Where is the uproar for the rights of those animals? No one seems to care.
A Look from the Other Side: You’ve probably heard the old saying, “A mind is like an umbrella: it functions best when open.” (Lincoln) That’s how I hope to approach every experience in my life. I want to keep an open mind so that I see both sides of as many issues as possible. True, I am a liberal, from a blue state, but the past few months have educated me. I now better understand where guides, hunters, fisherman and the like are coming from. I force myself to rise above the hypocrisy.
Now, that doesn’t mean I’m going to pick up a rifle and start hunting tomorrow or next year or possibly ever. I’m not sure hunting is for me. But I learned something. I learned that I didn’t understand the issue of harvesting animals from the point of view of the people that were using them. My new friends gave me a new-found appreciation for what those individuals are fighting. I’m glad to engage anyone on this topic and speak on both sides of it. But I think that after this exposure, I’ve been informed and transformed. “Chicks with guns” turned out to be a very educational project for me, and I appreciate the opportunity to have experienced it.
A very special thanks to James Eves for his generous spirit and gifted skills retouching these images. Thank you my friend!
And to Rhen Wilson for his superb editing skills.