This controversial yet fascinating photoessay was selected as a finalist in the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 39 of the winners and finalists.

The global concept of this project consists of making portraits of hunters with their naturalized (taxidermy) trophies on the spot where the hunt took place, like a metaphoric reconstitution of a real-life drama.

For this performance, which resembles a pilgrimage, I asked them to wear their most elegant and ceremonial clothes. This served as a reference to the paintings of the past, when kings posed in marvelous hunting costumes in front of wild landscapes.

The equipment I use to make these photographs had a distinct influence on the atmosphere. I wanted to capture an air of solemnity, so I used a 4x5 camera, coupled with flashes, all of which needed long preparation. This put the models in a motionless attitude before and during the shoots.

This project has been carried out in different countries around the world: France, Switzerland, western Africa, Mongolia, Argentina, Finland and Namibia.

—Pierre Abensur


LC: What do you hope to communicate with this series? Is this a celebration, a critique, research…?

PA: My approach is not to take a pro- or anti-hunting/trophy position.

As a non-hunter, I think it’s clear that hunting is not the cause of the extinction of species. Industry, intensive-agriculture and livestock breeding are much graver concerns.

Abolishing hunting is not a simple issue. Are we ready to stop eating meat, reduce our consumption and abandon half of the territories that we colonized in order to let the nature exist and develop by itself? I’m not sure.

LC: What first drew you to the subjects of “Subjective Trophies?”

PA: It’s a long story…I returned to my childhood village in the southern French Alps. Many of my friends were still there and had become hunters. I became curious by their taxidermied trophies, visible in their homes. They appeared like strange totems to me. The destructive act of killing was followed by the temptation to give life again. A post-mortem homage that revealed a strong evidence of paradoxical love. What motivated the decision to taxidermy each particular animal?

The answer became clear during a hunt: I was looking at both the hunter and trophy and noticed a resemblance between them. My vision changed: perhaps hunting was not simply a unilateral act but some kind of unconscious agreement between a predator and his prey, united in a natural cycle of perpetuation.

When I started the project, I wanted to stay far from the classical portraits of hunters in their trophy rooms. After all, a hunter’s story always start with “I was there…” So, the central importance of location had to be taken into consideration; I decided to organize “pilgrimages” to the spot where the hunts had originally taken place.

LC: What is your relationship with your subjects? Did you ever have trouble getting access or were they open to this kind of portraiture?

PA: At the beginning, 90% of them refused to participate. Some people considered my work motivated by ironic or cynical intentions. Country after country, it became easier, even if the acceptances had sometimes specific motivations. These hunters were not idiots and I would not have persuaded them to get involved in these “artistic expeditions” if they didn’t also have a love of the game and a bit of self-mockery.

For example, the Finnish man with the grey seal was very difficult to convince. But he finally accepted because he wanted to show how opponents of seal hunting always picture babies in their campaigns, not two-meter long adults who eat 5 kg of fish per day and who don’t have predators in the Gulf of Bothnia.

LC: You’ve been working on the project since 2008, quite a long time! Has your perspective on the question of hunting/trophies changed as you’ve worked on the series over the years?

PA: Perhaps you are thinking about the lion Cecil

First, I wanted to photograph a variety of people for my project. Thus, my approach lead me largely to local hunters. Except in very rare cases, the people pictured eat the meat of their prey. Occasionally, they had other reasons: a cattle farmer located next to a national park in Namibia has killed tens of lions in his life who were preying on his cows. After thirty, he decided to taxidermy one.

But even if we focus on the collectors of exotic trophies, who don’t kill for “practical reasons,” it’s important to know that most of them shoot animals in safari farms—where the animals are specifically bred for this purpose. Raised in their natural habitat, the lives of these safari farm animals are far superior to the billions of animals that we breed and slaughter on an annual basis—livestock, I mean. Some of these safari farms even take part in animal protection programs and host animals to keep them safe against poachers (not the case in national parks guarded by corrupted rangers!)

For example: Botswana abolished elephant hunting a few years ago amidst much congratulations from the international community. Some of the “extra” animals were brought to other countries to repopulate depleted herds. Meanwhile, elephant overpopulation continues in Botswana and has had disastrous consequences for local agriculture.

LC: I can imagine that some viewer’s visceral reaction to this subject will be extremely negative. What would you say to someone who found this work offensive or even “disgusting!!!”?

PA: When I started this project I had no provocative intentions. I wanted something soft, without blood or rifles. Even so, I faced very strong reactions from people who considered the work as an apologia for the murder of innocent and beautiful animals…Even magazine editors refused to publish the portfolio for fear of shocking their readers.

Remember Magritte’s painting: “This is not a pipe.” Taxidermy is not the animal, just a representation with a very small, organic part of it.

—Pierre Abensur, interviewed by LensCulture