“What is passion?”
The camera follows a camouflaged hunter as he walks through a sunlit forest, his steps crunching leaves underfoot. A slight breeze rustles golden foliage while an orchestra of chirping crickets fills the crisp early autumn air. A doe suddenly pops up from the underbrush and the hunter slows his steps. He gradually aims his bow and arrow, slowly pulls back the string and, with a snap, lets go.
This is a scene from the documentary film Hunting Nature, New Media and Photojournalism graduate student Joe Van Eeckhout’ s NEXT multimedia thesis project. The film follows hunter Tracy Groves and explains how the outdoorsman reconciles his strong faith with his passion for hunting.
“I think Tracy’s perspective on hunting and faith turns an often politicized topic into a human story,” said Joe, who began his project last summer with the intention to focus on the issue of raising children in households with guns. He reached out to families in hunting communities, giving them little criteria other than asking they hail from a strong hunting tradition.
Interested in families and gun culture, Joe was almost dissuaded from continuing the interview. But Tracy explained how hunting was much more than shooting prey and having trophies. He expressed how his talent strengthened his faith in God which inspired him to create Heartwood Outdoors, a ministry highlighting nature and Christian fellowship. Based on a 160-acre plot of woody farmland in eastern Maryland, Heartwood Outdoors serves as a haven for people struggling with hardships in life, Tracy said.
After speaking with Tracy and learning about his ministry, Joe was intrigued.
“When people think about hunting, they think about guns and killing innocent animals,” Joe said. But when Joe spoke to Tracy, he realized that the hunter provided a new perspective. Joe’s potential politically-charged project turned into a true human interest story.
The Story Behind the Passion
Learning to hunt at age 12, Tracy was taught at an early age the value of land conservation and the value of life. As he grew older and gained recognition for his marksmanship, he began competing in professional bow and arrow tournaments. In the film, Tracy explains how his growing passion for hunting initially caused him to shift away from his faith. The long hours spent perfecting his craft became a hindrance to the man he was destined to become, he said.
“At one point, I would come home at night and start practicing—shooting 200 to 300 arrows a night,” Tracy said. At the time, he did not realize that he was turning his valued talent into an obsession, losing precious moments with his family and forgetting the purpose of his faith.
“The little stuff we worry so much about…it really doesn’t mean anything,” Tracy said. Now, he tries to teach others the same.
Joe spent many days following Tracy, his older brother, Troy Groves and other members of the Heartwood Outdoors team into the woods where they mentored members of their ministry on technique, patience and being grateful for the gift of nature. They opened their arms to youth, individuals with special needs and the financially distressed.
“My success is watching people enjoy harvesting their first animal,” Tracy said. “It’s watching other people experience the same joy I have.”
Outside of fellowship, one of the most important aspects of hunting Tracy emphasizes is giving back to nature, Joe said. As a landowner, Tracy could shoot as many deer as he wanted. But it was not an example of what he called, ‘a good steward.’
“A good steward is harvesting what you know you’ll eat, what you’ll use and be done,” Tracy said.
The Film and the End Result
Throughout the film and in his photographs, Joe seized all aspects of Tracy the hunter and outdoorsman, the minister and the family man, and captured the glint in Tracy’s eye as he spoke of passion and purpose. The film also characterized nature as another character in Tracy’s story, with brilliant shots of tranquility and stillness.
Joe highlighted Tracy’s respect for nature and in the outdoors in a way that reminds the audience of simpler times – a society that was more aware of receiving and giving back to the land.
“This project required a lot of empathy,” Joe said. “I truly respect Tracy in the way he views his role in the world.”
One of the quotes Joe took away from his project was used as a voice over during a scene in which Tracy and his daughter carefully skinned and gutted a deer. In that scene, Tracy says: “The decisions we make as individuals, of what soil we will be planted in, will determine how well we grow.”
“That line really spoke to me and really says a lot about what he wants to instill in other people,” Joe said. “I think I’ll carry it with me for a long time.”
You can view Joe Van Eeckhout’s multimedia project Hunting Nature at the Corcoran School’s NEXT Thesis Exhibition until May 18 and at Huntingnatureproject.com.