Showing the human side of seal hunting

Yoanis Menge was waiting for his train in Paris when he first saw the ad. “There was this huge poster for a campaign against seal hunting,” he says. “It was a Photoshop montage of an adult seal holding a club and about to crush the head of a human baby on the ice.”

The ad shocked the photographer. Born in Switzerland but raised in Quebec, Canada, he grew up with the knowledge that seal-hunting forms part of the cultural, economic and social constructs of many communities in parts of Canada and beyond. In those parts of the world, the economy revolves around the seal, from their meat to their pelts.

Menge wanted to go beyond the cliches of ice floes covered in blood — the kind of images that end up in campaigns against seal hunting. He wanted to show the human side of seal hunting: the men and women who survive on the trade, often in parts of the world where fishing and hunting are the only choices available to them.

“It wasn’t easy to get access,” he says. Accustomed to being portrayed as cruel seal killers (photos usually focus on the large trails of bloods left in their wake), the hunters have shied away from journalists.

To gain their confidence, Menge trained and received his license as a bona fide seal hunter. He learned the three-step process, certified by Canada’s authorities, to kill a seal. Each one is killed with a shot in the head, Menge says. “You don’t want to make a hole in the pelt, so you shoot only if you know you’re not going to miss.” Then, using a hakapik, a sort of hammer outfitted with a hook, the seal’s head is crushed. Finally, the seal is bled on the ice. “That’s the regulation,” he says.

The process is bloody. That’s why Menge chose to shoot his project in black-and-white. His goal was to focus on the humans, to show that they aren’t barbarians. “We don’t live in nature,” he says. “We live with nature.” And the hunt is part of it.

More In Sight:

‘As long as I have Weimaraners, I will photograph them.’ William Wegman’s lesser-known dog Polaroids.

Playful and poetic: The children of the Cheyenne River Reservation

A photographer’s five-year odyssey chasing personal demons resulted in this darkly poetic book

In Sight is The Washington Post photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.