Healthy Obsession

Dec 01 2012 Published by under Intermediate Photojournalism Course

“I have probably seen more dead people—” said Todd Frantom, “true story: more dead people, than I have dead deer.”

We are surrounded by darkness in the middle of the woods with no one around for miles.  This is the recipe of the typical horror movie.

For Frantom, this scene is where he finds his serenity and escapes from his own mind.  He deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It wasn’t like I was shooting all over the place,” he explains.  “It was like, a grenade goes off, I hit the ground and I shoot him—and I watch him die. I know where my bullet hits.”  I hear the strain in his voice as he tells the story.  He is staring off into the distance, as if he isn’t with me.  It doesn’t quite seem like he is there either.  It feels like he is somewhere in between.

On another mission, “There was only two guys in front of me, going in the door,” Frantom said.  “So one guy goes in, goes right, the next guy goes left, and I come in straight and I’m trying to transition to my video camera.”  He is pantomiming the actions as he tells me the story.  “I just put it in its carrier and I’m pulling up my camera and this person, this big huge fat guy drops in front of me in this courtyard and we both started screaming.  He had a weapon.  He’s trying to pull his weapon and I was screaming and I grab my camera and I just swung and hit him over the head and then—ran out of there.”  He lets out a sheepish smile.  I see the relief in his face.  He is excited to tell the story, but there is something in his eyes that says he was truly afraid for his life.

It’s four in the morning.  We are tracking deer, guided by the light of our head lamps and his back-of-the-hand knowledge of these woods.  He tells me how he has spent four years in this same area, tracking the same deer.  He has even named them.

After setting up a circle of camouflage netting around a couple trees, and spraying ourselves down with a bottle of doe-in-heat, a scent that, at first, makes me step back with its putrid pungency: a mix of bad urine and stale blood.  After a while, the stench remains, but I grow more accustomed to it.  Frantom grins when he sees my reaction.

We sit there, listening  to the deafening silence.  The first sound to return is the cricket’s song.  This melody is followed by the falling of leaves.  Then the squirrels start chattering away.  Eventually, the sound of larger creatures creep through the forest.  I ask if we just heard a deer, but Frantom assures me that it was just a branch crashing to the ground.  The forest has a short memory, and now we are a part of it.

Though Frantom is an experienced hunter, his style is not traditional.  “When you shoot with a gun, you look through a scope, you pull the trigger, the animal is dead,” he explains.  “With a camera, the challenge of capturing a photograph, of, let’s just say a turkey, through woods, your depth of field is tree, tree, tree, tree, tree.”  As he tells the story, his hands are rapidly overlapping, one in front of the other, representing the forest.  He makes the motion for the camera adjustments as well. “Which means I have to manually focus on a moving subject two to three hundred yards out.”

This hasn’t always been his style.  Growing up, Frantom would frequently go out hunting wildlife with his father.  Ten years ago, he realized that he fell in love with the animals that he was killing.  He left part of that lifestyle behind, but he still finds the experience to be therapeutic.

“It’s like a double-edged sword,” Frantom explains.  “I don’t like the hunters—but I like them, because it makes the situation much harder for me to capture.”

The hushing sound comes out from between his lips.  Frantom is looking straight ahead, scanning the horizon for any movement.  He reaches down to pick up what he plans to shoot the deer with: his Nikon D3S camera.  The lens is as long as his forearm and as thick.  He waits, quietly, not moving a muscle.  The deer doesn’t come. He lets out a deep breath, and sits back against the tree.

It’s now 11 am.  The name of the buck we have been hunting all morning is Moose.

“I don’t sleep much,” said Frantom.  He takes a moment.  “But, I don’t want to miss much, either.”

After spending all morning in the woods, we start heading back to his truck.  Though we didn’t see Moose this morning, the trip was not entirely in vain.  Frantom is still stalking, calling, and scanning for the buck the entire walk back to our ride home.  The step in his bounce is more lively than when we started this adventure.  I see that, though he is searching the horizon, he is here now.

While he comes out to the woods a lot, it isn’t always alone.  He brings his daughter, Abigail, with him to see the deer as well.  As he describes it, the woods are his church.  This is where he finds his serenity.

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