McKean Minute: Grip and Grin 3.0

We call them “grip-and-grins.” You’ve seen them, and probably participated in more than a few, that pose with our quarry after a successful outing. I’ve seen you too, beaming like a flashlight while hoisting an outsized fish or thrusting the antlers of a deer or elk to the camera as though they were the Stanley Cup.

We hunters and anglers have been gripping and grinning as long as we’ve had instruments to record the moment. Whether faded tintypes in a museum or time-bleached Polaroids from the family album or digital photos shared by social media, these images have in common the electric joy of unexpected success. The best of these photos draw you in. You want to know more about the moment—where and when it happened? Who took the photo? The story of the hunt?

I mine the images for details—the heirloom rifle in that deer-hunting photo from 1933, the car model framing the family of happy pheasant hunters from 1966. The bow in that photo of an archery elk. I love them because these photos connect us as a community of hunters across time, place, and experience.

But lately these photos have gotten a bad rap because the happiness of the hunters can be construed as glorifying the death of the animal. An unfortunate trend, especially on social media, poses and frames the animal to exaggerate dimensions of its trophy parts without providing that context of the time, place, and participants that makes earlier iterations of the architype so universal.

This hero shot has become such an institution in our world that it is ripe for both parody and an update. My friend Ben O’Brien has taken a stab at the latter with what he calls “Grip and Grin 2.0,” replacing the horn-porn of antlers with the more consumable parts of the trophy: the meat. He’s solicited a whole series of these meat-centric photos—hunters hoisting backstraps and picked-clean skeletons of ribcages and backbones—and started a wider reconsideration of what a trophy means to a hunter.

I’d like to take it a step further and suggest an even more expansive definition of what it means to be a trophy hunter. In my proposal—call it Grip and Grin 3.0—the trophy parts have less to do with the animal than with the hunter. I think the greatest trophy a hunter can celebrate isn’t antlers. Or meat. It’s a new hunter posing with their very first animal. Or even better, their first notched tag.

I spent this season with three beginning hunters, doing my best to show them how to hunt. We were either good or lucky enough to kill animals together, and guided either by instinct or enthusiasm, one of the first things we did once the animal was located was to memorialize the moment with a photo. I wish we had more images of the two of us celebrating together, but I think we captured something even better, a pose with the very first validated hunting license. In each case, this newly minted hunter wanted to show the animal, but also the remarkable piece of paper that proves their entry into the community of hunters: a notched license.

I’m going to cherish these photos, not only for the animal, or even for the trophy license, but because they capture the very moment these peoples’ lives changed. The moment they called themselves a hunter, with the work, effort, knowledge, and reward to prove it. Call it a trophy moment, if you want. Or call it Grip and Grin 3.0.

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