What Photographing a Father-Son Hunt Taught Me About Manhood

A photographer follows an 11-year-old boy and his dad on the trail of wild boar in the deep woods of Arkansas.

It was not until the hog bolted, snarling and afraid, that I realised the extent of my vulnerability. According to the plan, the 230-pound pig was to be “bayed” by a small but adept pack of hounds until pit bulls and, later, knife-wielding hunters arrived on the scene. But when humans and dogs and wild pigs endeavour to survive one another, plans can turn to hopeful outlines.

Until that point, I had pursued the melee deep into the wooded banks of the Mississippi River with an irrational belief that, despite the prospect of danger, I had little to fear. But as the boar dashed in my direction, my heartbeat skyrocketed and my hands began to tremble and sweat. I spun around desperately looking for men with knives and grit and experience. Not one was in sight. I saw only Drew Moore, a slender, unarmed, 11-year-old boy. I figured he’d be of little help.

Drew poses with his air gun collection in his bedroom, where the definition of a boy is stencilled on the wall.

In the living room of the Moore family home, with the Hunting Channel on TV, Drew shows his stepbrother, Hudson, how to hold a toy rifle as his stepmother, Callie, looks on. Hunting plays a powerful role in the social fabric of the region. While it remains a male-dominated pastime, women’s attitudes are influential. “It’s not that we don’t like men that can’t hunt,” Callie explains. “It’s just that we really like the ones that can.”

“What the hell do we do if it comes at us?” I yelled. Drew barked in a tone that implied my question was stupid and the answer obvious: “You better get up a tree!” His cheeks were flushed and his eyes narrowed as he scanned our surroundings. The sounds of the hog drew closer but it remained shrouded in thick brush. I surveyed the available trees; all were thin and virtually limbless. I noticed, though, that Drew had chosen a trunk, and his hand rested loosely on it as he continued to search for signs of the advancing boar.

Drew and Peaty take an evening drive through farmlands in their hometown of Wynne, Arkansas. The two are incredibly close, sharing a bond built largely on participation in the outdoor traditions of northeastern Arkansas, where their family has lived for generations. Together they hunt, fish, and explore the countryside. During their excursions, Peaty provides Drew with an informal education on his forthcoming role as a man.

And then, suddenly, it dashed into view a few feet from us. It was large, muscular—and alarmingly agile. Close behind it came three frenzied hounds, barking and nipping at the animal’s hind legs. If I hadn’t been so scared I would have laughed. It looked like a cartoon fight, a swirling ball of dust with hoof or snout popping out and disappearing again.

Drew wades through a slough, fighting to keep pace during a wild-hog hunt in Dundee, Mississippi. Ahead but out of sight, hunting dogs make violent contact with a boar, and its squeal cuts through the air. “Get up here, boy,” shouts Peaty from the tangles ahead. Drew battles the landscape with the tenacity of a boy whose worth is at stake.

Hunting dogs perch atop a Ranger sport vehicle as it crosses a slough near Dundee, Mississippi. Hog-hunting terrain is often inhospitable: replete with dense brush, thorns, venomous snakes, and bodies of water. Hunters and dogs move in vehicles until they find evidence that hogs are about, the dogs are set loose and pursuit on foot begins.

The whirlwind flew past, leaving us alone again. I glanced at Drew, who appeared heartily amused to see a man 25 years his senior quaking in his boots. “Can you really get up one of those trees?” I asked as we began to chase after the bedlam. “Mister Pete,” he said, “if a hog’s comin’ at me, I’ll get up a tree a squirrel couldn’t get up.” He hurried his pace and took the lead, ducking branches and thickets, with me stumbling along behind.

“Go ‘head and stick ‘im,” Peaty tells Drew after placing a knife in the boy’s hands. Amid gnashing teeth, growls, and squeals, Drew finds his footing and struggles to drive the blade through the downed hog’s ribcage and into its heart. “These things [wild hogs] are about as dangerous as anything you’re gonna get here in North America,” Peaty says. “This prepares you for a lot of stressful things, teaches you to be level-headed, calm, and evaluate a situation.”

THRILL OF THE HUNT: Drew describes the feeling of his first hunt.

With distance and time to reflect on that day, I think about our evolutionary trajectory. We humans were once weaponless—defenseless against larger, faster, stronger predators. Some anthropologists say that our need for food along with our susceptibility to danger gave rise not only to the invention of weapons but to the highly social structures and gender roles of humankind today.

I travelled to the Mississippi-Arkansas border to participate in an experience that has remained a pillar of masculinity across cultures and places. Throughout history and literature, boar hunting has been associated with the most venerable warriors, among them the mythologised Greek chieftains who fought at Troy. Thousands of years later, on the banks of the Mississippi, men of the American South (and now women too, of course) hunt hogs in much the same way as their ancestors did: in small bands, with dogs and knives. Now, as then, they take no more than they need—and all the meat ends up on the family table.

A pit bull terrier, referred to as a catch dog, stands bathed in the blood of a boar at the scene of a kill. The Moore men and a cadre of others across the region continue the tradition of using trained dogs to increase their hunting advantage. First they release hounds to track the hog and put it at bay. Then the catch dog latches on, pinning the hog down so the hunter can kill it with a knife. Catch dogs are often outfitted in Kevlar vests to prevent injury.

Drew, Peaty, and family friend Ray (in blue jeans) drag the body of a sow up from the riverside on Peter’s Island, Mississippi. All the hogs that these men hunt are consumed as food by their families. “I want to teach him [Drew] how to take care of himself and how to take care of his own family, should he have one, as well as his extended family,” Peaty explains. “When it comes time for people to call on you, you need to be able to step up to the plate and be a leader.” Manhood, according to Peaty, is about caring for and helping others.

Following the arduous pursuit and the moment of triumph, Drew recovers on the forest floor. The kill, defined by noise and chaos, is followed by calm and silence. The Mississippi swirls in inlets nearby and a gentle breeze shakes branches bared by winter. “The world of boyhood is filled with wonder, curiosity, and vulnerability,” says sociologist Michael Kimmel, who has devoted his career to studying men and masculinities. “But somewhere along the line, that gets lost or taken. Boys become hardened,” he says.

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