Photographer Giacomo Fortunato joined “The Swamp Runners” for a venture into the Alabama swamplands, where Tremayne Benson is trying to keep the tradition of swamp rabbit hunting alive. Giacomo captured the hunters and their trained beagle hunting companions in action for Field & Stream and even suited up himself to stay dry and away from the sharp briar thorns.
Can you tell me more about this project?
“The Swamp Runners” was my first assignment for Field & Stream even though I’ve had other stories published for them in the interim. I spent a few days with Tremayne Benson, his family, and friends on a road trip from Birmingham to Mobile, Alabama hunting swamp rabbits. Swamp Rabbits are twice the size of your typical cottontail and use the swamp and briar bushes as protection from predators.
Tremayne raises beagles through his kennel, “Benson’s Kennel.” Swamp rabbit hunting is an old tradition in the South and is a practice that is slowly being phased out generation after generation. Tremayne’s goal is to raise awareness and keep this sport alive through his youtube channel, social pages, and website. He carries a video camera and tripod with him to capture footage of the hunt, explain what they are doing, and techniques they use. It’s this kind of tech savviness that allows him to share this old tradition with newer generations to keep it going.
What were the shoots like?
Each day we were up at 4 a.m. and drove a few hours to a hunting preserve. We would gear up in waders that came up to your waist and briar proof jackets. The group would fan out and the dogs would run off. They would pick up the scent and holler to let us know they found something. Once they located the rabbit hole, they would flush the rabbit out and the chase would begin. The rabbits have a particular pattern of running which the dogs and hunters understand. The rabbit will essentially run in a figure eight formation always trying to get away from the dogs and make it back to the safety of its den. However, the hunters that are all spread out can pick it off as it crosses their path. Some days we would catch a dozen rabbits.
Did you bring special equipment in preparation for shooting in swamps?
Field & Stream often provides various hunting gear from camo to waders, etc. Each of their shoots is different, so depending on where I’m getting sent at what time of year, what I’m wearing will be totally different. There are a few things I had to purchase, like a briar proof jacket; without it, I would have gotten shredded up. There are plenty of times briars nicked me in the face or hands cutting me up. Nothing serious though. Other than just making sure I would stay completely dry in the swamps, I had to pack all my EQ pretty well, one bad step and I could have fallen in with all my gear. Shoots like this, I’m rarely bringing light stands or anything like that. I have a two-light system that I have rigged to my camera or that I can handhold. Mobility is key.
Did you face any challenges with this project?
The most challenging thing about the project was being dressed in airtight waders, fully covered and carrying 30lbs on my back from sun up to sun down. It’s a shoot like this where you can overheat and dehydrate real fast. It was a three-day shoot, and the photo editor told me to capture anything and everything. There was a set shot list, but pretty much up to me to be vigilant about the photos I was taking. Talking with the hunters and writer, I was able to understand exactly what was important to them. The days were long, so there was no shortage of getting the shots I needed.
Do you enjoy being in the middle of the action during shoots?
I love being in the midst of the action, hence, why I brand, “The Action” on so much. Most of my shoots require me to be right there, head on with the subjects. Whether it is football player charging at me, a crowd surfer, or a gun being fired feet away from me, being in close proximity makes most of my subjects feel like I am part of the group rather than just a photographer. I like having fun with whoever I’m there with, while taking pictures or when I put the camera down. On the last day, I joined them for a little hunting and we set up targets to shoot.