Beauty amid the beasts
A Portuguese photographer finds a disappearing tradition in Portugal's forests and fields
In the early 1990s, Antonio Pedrosa discovered the work of the late 19th century Portuguese photographer Jose Augusto da Cunha Moraes, who traveled through Portuguese-African territories to capture colonial and African life. One image — an 1882 photograph featuring a dead hippopotamus lying on the banks of a marsh, surrounded by proud tribesmen and colonial hunters — percolated in Pedrosa's mind for years. Then, in 2013, he applied for and received a grant to photograph his own hunting series. But instead of following in Moraes' footsteps to Africa, Pedrosa stayed in his native Portugal.
"The only limitation for this grant was that the photos be made in Alentejo, an area in the south of Portugal," Pedrosa, 44, says. "But that was perfect, because Alentejo is the best hunting area in the country. For half a year, the inhabitants in this desolated area live to hunt — many of the fields and forests are maintained just for the sport."
Pedrosa arrived in Alentejo and discovered a culture far different than the trophy-gathering colonial hunters in Africa who had inspired his series. "Men with huge knifes in the belt, and the hunting dogs running toward the rifle hunters," he says. "It was that medieval view, that I've experienced in hunting paintings, that I wanted."
But such ancient hunting traditions aren't thriving under modern pressures. The financial crisis gripping much of Europe has not spared Portugal, and hunting — once a family tradition for those living in rural areas — is now an unsustainable expense for many. After all, it costs money to maintain a gun license, secure a place in the hunting grounds, and even drive out into the tangled, unsettled areas where the deer and boars roam. Many hunting families have been forced to moved away from their rural, ancestral villages for the promise of better luck in Portugal's cities.
"The typical Portuguese hunter, even if he does not live in the rural areas, was born there and experienced hunting since a young age, as part of a family tradition," Pedrosa says. "Now, most of the families who move to the city can't keep that legacy alive."
Pedrosa followed a motley crew of individuals from different classes and backgrounds. Before moving out into the field, the diverse group of men would gather to sip soup together at long, bare tables. On one such day, Pedrosa noticed Ana Parreira, a lone woman in the sea of testosterone, and he approached her for a portrait.
Parreira, a dog handler, was the only woman Pedrosa would meet in the several months he shot the series. The image of her standing with the dogs in perfect symmetry on either side is regal, despite her having just spent a long day moving across sodden, muddy land. She looks almost defiant, daring anyone to question her dedication to the fields — an attitude echoed by her fellow hunters.
These hunters have a palpable dedication and clear kinship to the fields. And so they traipse, through fog and across tough terrain, to sound the horn that sends the dogs out into the vegetation — to hunt one more day, at least.