In Norway, women are joining the hunt

Photojournalist Ingerid Jordal writes about her project “She Hunts”

AFRAID TO MEET A MOOSE: Mia Karine Mækelæ Johansen has just slaughtered a moose bull in eastern Finnmark. She says that before her first hunting trip, she was very nervous.

INGERID JORDAL
Voss, Norway

It’s cold. Čiestarákkas in Nesseby municipality in eastern Finnmark lies at 70° north, 28.5° east. If I were to travel straight south, I would come to Istanbul. How long have we been sitting here? The clock doesn’t match the light, but we’ve been up since half past five anyway. The women in the hunting team Tikka know that it’s no use lying down and retreating. We see a high-voltage mast, a kind of forest road suitable for driving ATVs, long, gentle mountain ridges and heavy clouds that come tumbling into them. The dogs run on the ground sniffing, but they don’t catch a whiff of anything. We stare through binoculars until we are cross-eyed. And it’s raining. Slowly, slowly, the moisture creeps through the zipper of the camouflage clothing, and it starts to drip down onto my trousers.

A few years ago, I saw a photograph of a friend on Facebook. She stood wide-legged over a large reindeer she had just shot. The weather looked sour, the wind ruffled her hair, and some blood had spilled over onto her jacket. She had a firm grip around the buck’s antlers and a broad smile on her face. She was heavily pregnant. I thought about this photograph for a long time, because something struck me as a bit off. When I saw it again a few years later, quite by accident, I was a little disappointed by how the image wasn’t so iconic. In my head, the image had lived and grown and turned out exceptionally well. But it wasn’t the image itself, it was the idea of the content of the image that had stuck with me.

ALONE WITH A GUN: Gjertrud Strand Sanderød is hunting reindeer near Rondane in eastern Norway. “The first time I sat alone with a rifle in nature, it felt very strange. I felt a big sense of responsibility and great seriousness,” she says.

Everything is soaking wet, from the cloth that was supposed to keep the rain out to the woolen underwear bottoms that were supposed to help me keep warm. Through the camera lens, I now only see a speck of fog. Moisture in the lens. I think, “There better not be any moose coming our way right now,” and they don’t. Wet and demotivated, I “swim” in my shoes back to the camp that evening. The hunter I sat with seems rather unaffected. That’s hunting. Once back in the tent camp, we hang up everything that is wet. The next morning, the camera is still and foggy as my head, after far too little sleep. We get ready to trudge 2 miles through the bog and scrub. The question keeps popping up in my head: Why am I doing this?

The photograph of my pregnant friend and the dead buck challenged my ideas about women and what we can and can’t do. Or, rather, what we do and usually don’t do. Am I so old-fashioned that I don’t think women can hunt? Of course not. But still, there were some beliefs and prejudices that collided in my head at the sight of the woman who would soon become a mother, in a carnal pose over something she had killed. What’s going on, and why? I was curious. That’s why I started to investigate what it means to be a female hunter. With the camera.

A dull bang through the valley. The radio crackles.

“There he fell!”

“Damn it … holy shit …”

“Mind your language now, we have kids who are listening here!”

The hunting team is suddenly in a state of wild jubilation and intense work. A minute ago, everyone sat dead still, watching and listening. Now everyone is on their way to where the bang and the profane outburst of joy came from. A euphoric hunter meets us at the scene. On the ground lies a huge, dead animal. The elk must be gutted (emptied of its entrails) and transported down to the village as soon as possible. The hunters soon stand hunched over the bull, between sips of Jägermeister, hugs, and the snapping of trophy photos. The shooter herself grins broadly as she drags and drags a gut. In Norway, 15% of all registered hunters are women. But we are not going back many decades in time before a hunting team like Tikka was unthinkable.

HEART IN HAND: A deer’s heart that has just stopped beating. For many hunters, the heart is considered a delicacy.

UPHILL: Turid Soldal hunts grouse near Voss in western Norway. The hills are steep and require good physical condition.

“Thirty years ago there were hardly any female hunters,” says sociologist Hans Peter Hansen at the University of Aarhus. The Dane is one of the few researchers in Scandinavia who has studied hunting and hunters. Hansen believes that it is historical and cultural baggage that is the cause of the gender imbalance in hunting.

“Hunting used to be something that was passed down from father to son. Maybe this is the last man’s bastion that is now about to fall,” says Hansen. He thinks the most interesting question is not why there were so few female hunters before but why there are so many of them now.

“To answer that, I would first ask: Why do we hunt at all, when we can go to the store and get the meat both faster and cheaper? The answer to this is the same as the answer to why there are more women hunters: We humans are increasingly in need to reconcile ourselves with nature. In modern society, we are constantly reminded that we do not live sustainably, and the feeling of being distanced from nature increases. Therefore, we need to find ways to remedy our bad conscience. In hunting, we become part of the fundamental process, which is life and death. I think this appeals to both women and men,” says Hansen.

“At first I thought: ‘Moose hunting … how difficult can it be?’” says Mia Karine Mækelæ Johansen. A resident of Eastern Finnmark, she has hunted grouse for as long as she can remember, but moose, that’s something different.

“Before my first moose hunt I was nervous. In fact, I hoped I would never see any moose, so I didn’t have to make the decision to shoot.”

Now she stands with her arms dug into the belly of the entire 660-pound young bull.

SCOUTING: A hunter scouting for moose near Vestre Jakobselv in Eastern Finnmark, northeast Norway. Many hunting days are spent just watching and waiting.

Aase Kristin Lundberg at Nordlands­forskning is concerned with what kind of ideas we have about those who use Norwegian nature. I wonder why I react to the image of the pregnant hunter?

“There are two things that meet and do not match our expectations. It is about what you expect an expectant mother to do, and what a ‘hunter’ is. Behind such so-called neutral expressions, such as “hunter” or “fisher,” lie very clear expectations of who this figure is, and this woman conflicts with those perceptions.

“When we hear various expressions, such as hunter or fisher, we automatically get a stereotypical image of what this person looks like. A hunter is typically a white man, preferably in his 50s or 60s, perhaps part of a male-only hunting team. This is what we expect to see. The usage of nature is gendered.”

The researcher also believes that this may be changing. More and more female hunters and fishers are influencers on social media.

“We are now trying to find out whether they challenge or confirm a stereotype about who uses nature,” Lundberg says.

LONG WAY HOME: Two hunters pulling a dead deer downhill through a pine tree forest near Arna, western Norway. The steep hill is both helpful and challenging.

Different uses of nature can come into conflict with each other, and Lundberg is therefore preoccupied with who uses and decides over nature and what consequences this may have.

“The goal must be that it is as diverse as possible. It is interesting to see what kind of images are chosen to illustrate usage of the Norwegian outback. The pitfall is whether it is inequality in itself that is highlighted. If you emphasize that it is someone of foreign origin who goes on a fishing trip, or that it is women who hunt, then it becomes easy to exotify. There must be a balance,” Lundberg says.

The hunters have finished slaughtering and take a break. Now, the newly shot moose will be published on Instagram and Snapchat. Their mothers and sweethearts, everyone needs to hear about this wonderful thing that has happened. It is Mia’s second moose and the first bull. It is also one of the few animals that has been killed in this area in recent years. A feather in the hat to everyone on the team, who are proud and happy. 

On the way down toward the village, the signal kicks in, and the world finds out. The phones light up, beep, and tick. Old hunters, neighbors, and relatives gather in the garage down in the village. Everyone wants to look, and many want to help. An old man takes the shooter’s hand and congratulates her. A former hunter, he has been sitting at home, listening to the hunting radio.

Am I contributing to exotifying female hunters by creating a project like this? Sometimes it has felt that way. “Look, women can do something masculine.” That the catch should always be that it is a “female hunter,” not just a hunter. At the same time, I believe that I contribute to nuance the image of what a “hunter” is, by conveying the image and representations of hunters who, in fact, are women. Nevertheless, it is precisely that “uniqueness” that has fascinated me to work further with photographing hunters. The more I work, the more aware I become of the basic motivation behind the project: life, death, instinct. A hunter said to me: “That idea about men having a greater hunting instinct than us women, I simply don’t believe in it. We don’t hunt to prove that we can. We do it because it is an equally natural thing for us.”

Was this what occurred to me so clearly when I saw the photograph of the pregnant hunter? That was surprising to me?

MOTHER AND DAUGHTER: Hildegunn Espe and daughter Hedda Øysteinsdotter Espe are hunting reindeer in Hardangervidda, western Norway.

The smell of dead moose has filled our noses for a long time. The women have skinned the moose, which now hangs from the ceiling in Torunn’s garage. The adrenaline starts to leave the body; instead the cold creeps in. Now the meat should be left to hang for a while and become tender. But there are more animals on the quota, and we pile onto the ATV and drive back up to the camp to be ready the next morning. 

Inside the tent, Mia, the shooter, gets a blood red with the team logo and SHOOTER written in gold across the shoulders. Tikka doesn’t play hunting team. And the prosecco is popped. Hunting team leader Gunlaug raises her glass.

“I envy you, Mia, the feeling you have now,” she says.

Very often when I go out with hunters, we sit in the tent and take a breather on the ground. As we whisper to each other as to not disturb the animals, someone says to me: “You should also take the hunting test, so you can hunt. You can borrow a rifle!” But I’m already hunting, with my camera. I hunt for something similar as a hunter does with a weapon. A good photograph is like prey. A trophy, which I can print and hang on a gallery wall, or publish on the front of a magazine. A feeling of accomplishment, of bringing something home, not coming empty-handed, but having something to show for it. Which provides my family with income and food on the table. And when Gunlaug says to Mia that she envies her for that feeling, I know what feeling she means, because I have exactly the same feeling. Just as the hunters shoot their prey, today, I have “skutt blink,” shooting my subjects straight in the middle. In fact, the Norwegian expression is the same for both hunting and photography.

I ask Gunlaug what she thinks about taking a life.

“When I have shot an animal, I am first and foremost happy. I have achieved what I set out to achieve. A real sense of achievement. I can also get sad. I actually killed that animal,” says Gunlaug thoughtfully.

“But mostly, I’m happy.”

All photos by Ingerid Jordal

This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ingerid Jordal

Ingerid Jordal is a photojournalist based in western Norway, with a great passion for the deep north and stories of belonging. She is scared of flying, but not scared of driving backward on a highway in Seattle. Learn more at www.ingeridjordal.no.