The portraits are jarring, to say the least. But when French photographer Pierre Abensur set out to take photos of hunters and their kills, he wasn’t necessarily aiming to shock.
“I wanted to make it as an homage to the ceremony distanced from the violence of the act, so without rifles, blood, and hunting dresses,” he said in an email. Which is how he ended up convincing hunters to dress in their finest attire and trudge out to the exact spot of the kill—with their fully taxidermied trophies in tow.
He said that the purpose of his work is “not to glorify or condemn the hunt,” but to highlight the complex and emotional relationships between humans and wildlife. Indeed, depending on your opinion of sport hunting, these photos may evoke dismay and discomfort at the seemingly callous pride of the hunter and deadened eyes of the prey, or they may be seen as an ode to the natural world and the natural cycle of predator and prey.
His series, “Subjective Trophies,” began with an idea more than eight years ago, when he visited his childhood village in the French Alps after living abroad for many years. He noticed that many of his friends had taken up hunting, a generations-old tradition in the town.
Not a hunter himself, Abensur began to wonder what motivated a hunter to preserve a particular animal and display it in the home. A photographer whose work is typically more photojournalistic, he decided to explore in this project the evolution of hunting as a means to survival into a hobby.
Most photos of hunters are either taken right after the kill, with the hunter standing proudly with his gun over the animal, or at home, with the hunter surrounded by his taxidermied prizes.
Abensur’s vision was different. He recalled grand centuries-old European oil paintings, an era when hunting was a pastime for noblemen, and wanted to recreate that romantic, aristocratic sensibility. He invited his subjects—who often took some persuading—to go on a pilgrimage back to the location of the kill. Using a 4x5 large-format camera forced him to take fewer photos and work at a slower pace, contributing to the solemn, frozen-in-time look of the subjects and detailed background.
“I was using a studio camera and artificial light, in nature, on a model dressed in civilized clothes, and the trophy had been naturalized in a very chemical processing,” he told the New York Times in 2015, referring to the French term for taxidermy. “All these elements gave a surrealist touch to the atmosphere.”
Juxtaposing the lifeless animals in vibrant nature scenes sitting alongside their hunters in their best garb, these photographs also seem to demand that the viewer question the role hunting holds in today’s society, where most people no longer depend on it to survive. Nevertheless, Abensur points out that the subjects are local hunters, and except in very rare cases, they did eat the meat of their prey. Some told Abensur they shot the animals not necessarily for trophies but for other reasons—to deal with a nuisance lion attacking cattle in Namibia, for example.
Hunting for sport and trophies is a controversial hobby, especially popular with Americans and some Europeans. Hunters often posit that they’re conservationists, that the funds from their hunts go toward community development and wildlife protection projects.
“Most of the hunters I know have a real fascination for nature,” Abensur said, “and for them taking life is a part of that love. I considered the act to kill followed up by a will to restore the appearance of life, as a sign of paradoxical love.”
Many who oppose this pursuit say that taking an animal’s life for sport is simply unethical, and some point out that oftentimes proceeds from trophy hunts are siphoned off by corrupt officials or squandered in mismanagement before they can have a positive effect on a community.
Many of Abensur’s subjects were initially reluctant to participate.
“Many people refused because they didn’t understand or like my approach, especially the fact of being dressed up in suits in the wild,” he said.
Those who eventually came round did so for different reasons. The Finnish man with the adult grey seal trophy agreed in the hope that the image would serve as counter-argument to the marketing tactics of animal advocacy groups, which he said often publicize images of gruesomely killed baby seals. Others were game farm owners that Abensur thinks wanted to use the photos to drum up more business. And for the traditional hunter in West Africa, the hunt was a symbol of pride—the trophy epitomizes the owner’s supreme power, Abensur said. Plus, according to Abensur, he saw it as an honor to be distinguished in Western media.
The series now comprises more than 80 photos, shot on location from Mongolia to Argentina to Finland, France, Namibia, and other countries.
You can see more of Abensur's work on his website.