Shoot to Thrill

Sparring Red Hartebeests, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Sparring Red Hartebeests, Etosha National Park, Namibia

“When this is in your hands, you are the center of the universe. Not that anything else exists, it certainly does. You are important, this thing empowers you to do whatever the hell you want.” – Mel DiGiacomo, photojournalist

“On the barrel, pretty white letters spelled out PARTY STARTER.” – Ilona Andrews, Gunmetal Magic


On the tediously long flight from Washington to Johannesburg, I was seated among a small group of middle-aged men decked out in the latest camouflaged fashions. They were, as they say, all in. The affected clothing items and accruements included, but were not limited to, jackets, ball caps, handbags, boots, eyeglass and phone cases, one eye patch, and a tee shirt emblazoned with block letters:


A hunting party, no doubt.

At this realization, I was for the briefest of moments shocked that these grown men were traveling a great distance to kill the same creatures I was planning to photograph. I was also somewhat shocked at my own naïveté since African hunting safaris have a much longer history and steeper tradition than wildlife photography after all. Grainy black and white photographs of the bespeckled Teddy Roosevelt, rifle in hand grinning over the corpse of some poor Cape buffalo, come immediately to mind.

While casting no judgments on hunting in general – for sustenance (if and when necessary) and as a management tool with oversight by the appropriate authorities (for the benefit of wildlife or a specific species) – I must confess that killing for sport or trophy sickens me, especially African megafauna which has been in precipitous decline in recent years.

Either way, for better or worse, I have zero interest in participating myself. I know many wildlife photographers who are former hunters and they’ve all intimated that the primal “thrill of the kill” is the same, only a good wildlife image is much more of a challenge. The human predatory instinct is still propitiated but without the blood, guts, and guilt. Photography is also more of what I would consider to be a sporting proposition, in that both participants are able to safely walk away from the encounter.

Still, in many ways, photography and firearms are inextricably married, with language the most common bond. For instance, a camera is still said to be fired and so is a flash gun. A collection of lenses is often referred to as an arsenal and all lenses of course have a barrel. Super telephotos are big guns while small fully automatic, pocket-sized cameras are point-and-shoot. So without even having to mention headshot you should already be getting my drift here.

I feel the primary complication lies with the ambiguity of the words shoot and shot. A portrait photographer’s Twitter bio might include “I shoot people,” a joke that ceased being funny a long time ago, if for no other reason it’s breathtakingly unoriginal and old. If they mention that they can legally cut people’s heads off, well, then that makes it at least fractionally funnier.

Shot is a cute, amputated form of the word snapshot, borrowed yet again from weaponry and born in the early 19th century meaning, “a quick shot with a gun, without aim, at a fast-moving target.” Some photographers, I fear, might feel this definition hits a bit too close to home.

I use the words shoot or shot from time to time, but I try to do so as infrequently as possible. It’s not because of the words’ possibly violent undertones but instead I find them to be rather inelegant and crude. As a substitute for shot, I prefer image or photo. Image is snazzy and modern, fully appropriate for the age of digital cameras and smartphones – digital imagery. Stretching photo all the way out into photograph sounds a bit too old fashioned and implies, at least to me, a tangible print. The same goes for picture. The slang pic should always be avoided if you are older than 25 or if used outside the context of an online chat. Under no circumstances should it ever be verbalized. Capture, used as either a noun or verb, is gaining in popularity among photographers but has never fully caught on with me. Epic capture or I captured the sunset tonight is either too disconnected from photography or far too hip for its own good.

I think it’s time we all joined together to find some new terminology.

On the same recent flight mentioned earlier, I was told of a U.S State Department bulletin warning travelers to Johannesburg’s Tambo International Airport of thieves and muggers posing as taxi operators, an unsettling possibility.

As I carefully deliberated over my transportation options upon arrival, a friendly young driver approached and offered a ride to my hotel at a reasonable price. I searched for any clues in his appearance – a ridiculous and futile exercise – then followed him out to his car, which had an illuminated “taxi” sign perched on its rooftop, a good sign indeed.

When he asked about the purpose of my visit, I cryptically replied, “Shooting animals,” just as he reached for my luggage and opened the trunk.

“Ah yes, hunting?”

“You could say that.”

Before the trunk was closed, I reached for my oversized camera pack and said casually, “No thanks, but I’d prefer to keep the guns up front with me.”

May, 2014 – Johannesburg, South Africa

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  1. Posted May 24, 2014 at 8:44 am by briana nix | Permalink


  2. Posted May 24, 2014 at 8:59 am by Stephanie Samrow | Permalink

    ??? Flash Gun. Thought it was shock and awe so I was shocked when I looked it up lol. Please repeat, hunters “thrill of the kill” part whenever you can.
    Am from a long line of “gentleman hunters” who are not embarassed to own giving up a “kill shot” because the creature was just to beautiful. These same; never ever allowed the women to watch the dressing of anything being prepared for the table.
    Knowing as little as I do about photography I am submissive to you, albeit instinctively, and it is pleasing.
    Wonderful blog posting Richard TY 🙂
    Before I go I have to ask. What are these Sparring Red Hartebeests doing?
    They look to be honoring what lies ahead both in the foray and outcome unless the sparring had already begun. Wondering if this is a ritual particular to them 🙂 .

  3. Posted May 24, 2014 at 9:30 am by Lori Cannon | Permalink

    I can’t decide what I enjoy more Richard
    Your prose or your photographs
    Yes I’m sure you can tell I’m older(wink)
    As I use the word pic inadvertently and mostly when I think it’s hip
    Just a tree hugging hippee myself who cannot tolerate these men who I feel are morons for wanting to kill the kings of the beasts
    In fact I think there should be an international law against killing any of the wild species of animals that are left on our planet
    Just read scientists predict we will lose 75% of species within 300 years if we continue at this alarming rate
    That’s just not acceptable to me
    I simply won’t stand for it
    So my life’s mission if I choose to accept it is to become a wildlife photographer and do everything in my power to stop this madness I perceive is wiping out what remaining species we have left
    I calculate the only way to accomplish this seemingly insurmountable feat is to make the rest of the world feel that way too
    The only way I see to do this is to make people fall in love with the animals as much as you and I have done and the only way to do that is to show them the Image!
    That’s why I consider the top photographers in the world in a league of their own:)
    That’s my goal I’ve set for myself now
    To change the world one photograph at a time
    Oh yeah also the Bees rule in my book
    If we save the Bees
    We save ourselves
    I’m hoping to get my finances together so I can take one of your classes
    It’s at the top of my list and I too do not like lists except for this one:)
    So I won’t give up on my dream cause my mother taught me you never give up and so I think we shall meet someday barring any unforeseen disaster or time slips away
    So I’m working on getting my equipment together and perfecting the basic techniques so I will be ready to take one of your classes! Groovy;)

  4. Posted May 24, 2014 at 10:25 am by linda rachel | Permalink

    Very well said. Could not agree more.

  5. Posted May 25, 2014 at 9:10 am by Terry Alexander | Permalink

    Coming from a long ancestory of hunters (my great great grandfather was a gamekeeper in Scotland) I really loved the blog and could not agree more. I first started treking the railroad tracks of Minnesota with my grandfather at the age of 5 chasing the elusive pheasant. Learning early the value of killing only what you need for sustenance – I don’t really understand the trophy hunter. In the ensuing 55 years I’ve continued hunting but these days my rifles and shotguns reside in the closet and I find far more joy in taking the shot with my SLR and allowing both of us to continue on our way.

  6. Posted May 26, 2014 at 7:46 am by Arthur Morris | Permalink

    Hey Richard, Very well written. We are very much on the same page on the language of photography. I like “make” or “create.” And once in a while I use the word that the late Fritz Pölking loved for image: “motif.”

  7. Posted May 27, 2014 at 8:42 am by David Johnston | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more! South Africa looks like a great place! I plan to go next year

  8. Posted October 18, 2015 at 5:00 pm by Metin Yılmaz | Permalink

    Muhteşem bir fotoğraf , tebrikler.

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