David Chancellor

One can’t think of photographers who photograph trophy hunting without thinking of David Chancellor. Chancellor is a photographer based in South Africa, recipient of many awards and is well known for his documentary work. His illustrious profile can be read here. Over time he has turned his attention to documenting the commodification of wildlife in Southern Africa.

For centuries big game hunting has always been a pastime of the wealthy and this past time was avidly practiced by kings and presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and King Henry VIII spring to mind). In a bygone era hunting used to be a matter of survival, or some would say a matter of skill and courage, but nowadays it is a lucrative tourist attraction, where animals are corralled into big camps and “big game hunters” are guaranteed a kill of their choice. Eco-hunting has also taken root. A practice where a dart gun replaces the rifle, the animal is not killed but merely tranquilized long enough to allow the “hunter” to pose for the obligatory photograph of his “kill” and for the accompanying researchers to carry out their routine inspections or tagging. The animal lives to see another day, but more sinisterly also becomes party to a poacher’s paradise.

For the purposes of my review I shall be looking at two images by David Chancellor. Probably one of the best known images of Chancellor’s Hunters series is Huntress with buck, South Africa, which won the 2010 Taylor Wessing portrait prize. It is an image of a young girl with beautiful red hair, seated on a bay pony with a Blesbok draped over the pommel of her saddle. The girl is dressed in khaki clothes which echo the muted tones of the surrounding savannah grasslands. The overall warm, earthy tones of the horse, girl and buck form a complementary contrast to the light blue sky and the slight blue tinge to the mountains in the background. The colour palette of this photograph is rather reminiscent of Jan Vermeer’s landscape paintings, as can be seen from Vermeer’s An extensive dune landscape with a farmhouse and a bleaching ground painting below.

An extensive dune landscape with a farmhouse and a bleaching ground by Jan Vermeer
An extensive dune landscape with a farmhouse and a bleaching ground by Jan Vermeer

The Huntress image is a rather disturbing image. Upon closer observation, we can see that this representational image has a few disconcerting disconnects or ironies. As Peirce states in Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners ‘Anything which focuses the attention is an index. Anything which startles us is an index … Indexical signs ‘direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion’ and this image fulfills these statements.

Our immediate focus is drawn to the lovely, young girl who sits upright like a Joan of Arc on her steed. The photographer has chosen a low viewpoint for this photograph, positioning his main subject in the centre, with her head in the upper third of the frame, visually depicted higher than the mountains in the background, while she and the horse form a powerful triangle in the centre of the image. This placement lends an aura of power to the young girl. This idealized placement of the girl is similar to the figure of Liberty in Eugène Delacroix’s The 28th July: Liberty Leading the People (1830).

The girl gazes down at the viewer with a deadpan expression on her face. What should be a symbol of purity and innocence (the young girl) has actually turned out to be an agent of death. We see the evidence of her actions proudly draped in front of her like an offering to the gods, while she holds the Blesbok’s head aloft by one of its horns. Her horse’s head is bowed subserviently and its sad gaze is averted as if it is ashamed of the role it has played in this killing. The beautiful Blesbok, once a symbol of carefree spontaneity and beauty, has been reduced to a symbol of death and all the ugliness that still awaits it upon slaughter.

‘It’s a complicated image. I don’t think she particularly has a pride, or is happy with what she’s done – she’s ambivalent but has a certain grace. It’s an image that creeps up on you.

David Chancellor, Mail Online


hunter with giraffe, ladysmith, south africa-from the series 'hunters' © David Chancellor
hunter with giraffe, ladysmith, south africa-from the series ‘hunters’ © David Chancellor – kiosk
Reproduced with permission from David Chancellor – kiosk

One of the definitions of an ideology is “the general process through which our systems of belief and desire are produced and consumed. On this view, various parts of a society or culture act to produce (and also make available to consume certain styles of thought or ways of thinking” (Hall, 2015 p. 162). Big-game hunting is an expression of Social Darwinism ideology, where the rich and powerful overcome the poor, struggling classes. What better way to display one’s power, riches and authority than to travel to far flung lands and conquer the resident wildlife of that country … what courage! (I am being cynical here – just in case someone reading this post misconstrues my meaning of the previous sentence).

In Hunter with giraffe, Ladysmith, South Africa above, we see the American hunter sitting casually nestled against the giraffe which he has just killed, clad in his camouflaged  hunting jacket, smoking his pipe. His rifle (the instrument of death) is propped up against his leg and arm nonchalantly. The giraffe is graceful even in death, as its neck creates an elegant S-curve over the hunter.

In contrast to the Huntress image mentioned above, Chancellor has chosen a viewpoint that is almost eye-level to or just a little higher than the hunter. The positioning of the the hunter and giraffe in the centre of the frame follow the syntagmatic spatial dimension of centre and margin. The scrubby grass in the foreground, thorn trees on camera right, and surrounding hills with their thorn bushes on camera left echo the undulations of the giraffe’s neck, and the vast expanse of sky overhead, create the boundaries of the image, which supply the viewer with supplementary information about the hunter’s terrain. The proximity of death and thorns conjure up a biblical image in one’s mind.

In this image, however, the hunter does not dominate the prey. The hunter with his camouflaged jacket and faded jeans, and the fact that he is sitting in the shade of the giraffe, almost blends in with the surrounding vegetation, while the giraffe with its distinctive orange and white markings demands centre stage. Ironically, in death, the giraffe takes on a protective pose around the hunter, almost like a cat curled around her newly born kittens in a nurturing manner. In both images a certain tension is visible. There is that frozen moment recorded in time that leaves the viewer wondering what exactly came before that instant (the fatal shot) and what happened after it (the chase). Hall (2015, p. 184) concludes that ‘the stillness of the action creates both narrative tension and expectation’.

Although these two photographs are images of people, they are really portraits of the animals. It is their narrative that is being told, not the hunters’ and it is their narrative that we should keep on telling.

Reference List

Chancellor, David [online]. Available from: http://www.davidchancellor.com/docs/profile.php. [Accessed 8 March, 2016]

Chancellor, David Hunters [online] Lensculture. Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/david-chancellor-hunters#slide-1 [Accessed 8 March, 2016]

File:Eugène Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People (28th July 1830) – WGA6177.jpg Wikimedia Commons. Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Delacroix_-_Liberty_Leading_the_People_%2828th_July_1830%29_-_WGA6177.jpg [Accessed 9 March, 2016]

File:Jan Vermeer van Haarlem I – An extensive dune landscape with farmhouse and a bleaching ground.jpg [online]. Wikimedia Commons. Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jan_Vermeer_van_Haarlem_I_-_An_extensive_dune_landscape_with_farmhouse_and_a_bleaching_ground.jpg [Accessed 9 March, 2016]

Hall, Sean (2015). This Means This This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. Second Edition. London. Laurence King Publishing

O’Flynn, Elaine (2015) Shocking portraits of the people – including a 14-year-old girl – who pay tens of thousands to bring down the beasts in Africa [online] MailOnline. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3187808/Shooting-big-game-hunters-Photographer-took-shocking-portraits-unrivalled-insight-minds-people-including-14-year-old-girl-pay-tens-thousands-bring-beasts-Africa.html [Accessed 9 March, 2016]

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1931 – 58): Collected writings (8 Vols.).  Cited in Chandler, Daniel (1994 – 2016). Semiotics for Beginners [online] . Available from: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/ [Accessed 9 March, 2016]


Carpenter, Mackenzie (2015). Big-game hunting has a long and storied history [online]. Pittsburg-Post Gazette. Available from: http://www.post-gazette.com/news/nation/2015/08/06/Big-game-hunting-has-a-long-and-storied-history/stories/201508040170 [Accessed 8 March, 2016]

Hall, Sean (2015). This Means This This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. Second Edition. London. Laurence King Publishing

Marshall, Leon (2003). In Africa, Hunters Pay to Tranquilize Game for Research [online]. National Geographic. Available from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/06/0616_030616_greenhunting.html [Accessed 8 March, 2016]

Reid, Charles (2015) Why Is Big-Game Hunting So Repulsive? [online]. HuffPost Politics. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charles-j-reid-jr/why-is-big-game-hunting-s_b_7921908.html [Accessed 10 March, 2016]


3 thoughts on “David Chancellor”

  1. The Taylor Wessing Prize was one of the first Exhibitions I went to when beginning the degree. I was so drawn towards the photograph of the young huntress, so beautiful and yet so destructive.
    Seeing the photographs of the hunter and giraffe reminds me again of those contradictions regarding the use of beautiful images to portray violence. They do draw me in with their beauty, but then to really look and ponder. What is the psychology that draws some people towards destroying life and beauty? Do they think they then possess it for themselves?
    To me the dead giraffe is almost cradling the hunter – to draw him in, saying, “this too will be you in time”.
    A really good review Lynda.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s