Four frames were all Johnny Haglund needed to tell the tale of a family hunting alligators in Louisiana: scouting, schooling, transporting and delivering. That’s one reason why he was named joint winner last month of the “wild stories” category in the 2013 Travel Photographer of the Year competition. His portfolio, the judges said, was “both gritty and disturbing”, offering “intense insight and from close proximity”.
When the winners as a whole were announced, picture galleries in many publications featured the second frame, in which five-year-old Caleb Cortez, hand steadied by that of his grandfather, Ed, despatches an alligator in a swamp close to the family home in Lac des Allemands. It wasn’t his first kill. “By the time I met him,” says Haglund, “he’d already shot eight.”
Haglund, a photographer from Norway specialising in wild places and adventure, has known the elder members of the family since 1998, when he was invited to join them on a hunting trip. To make the pictures for his winning portfolio, in September 2012, he spent four days with Ed, Caleb, Ariel (11) and the children’s other grandfather, Eugene Loupe, going out hunting every day for a few hours. The children should have been at school and pre-school, but days before the photographer arrived Hurricane Isaac had flooded parts of Louisiana, and classrooms were closed.
Haglund has seen the TV series Swamp People, broadcast on the US channel History, which features alligator hunting, and considers it “a bit of an exaggeration”, but there was no hamming-up done for his camera. “To me, coming from a country where you see guns only on TV, it was startling to see children this young with firearms,” he says. “But their grandfathers were very careful about teaching them how to use them and how to handle them.”
The children are equally at home on the boat, which, at the end of the day, is slid back on to a trailer at the dock “and rolled right into Eugene’s garden. After offloading the alligators, they will skin them and cut up the meat. Some they keep, but most of it they sell.”
It’s not a full-time trade – the season lasts only 30 days, and Ed makes most of his living from oil-rig work – but it’s one that Caleb and Ariel told Haglund they intend to carry on.
And the photographer: he’s off at the end of January to the coal-mining town of Jharia, near Kolkata (Calcutta), in India. Fires that have been burning underground for more than 80 years, despite all efforts to put them out, are now erupting on to the surface, devastating the lives of people who scratch a living there. MK
Pictures © Johnny Haglund 2014.
For more of the photographer’s work, see johnnyhaglund.com. His images of the alligator hunters will be on show with other winning entries in the Travel Photographer of the Year competition (tpoty.com) at the Royal Geographical Society (rgs.org) in London from July 11 until August 17.