Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Photojournalist Melissa Volpi - An Interview

In the immortal words of John Cleese, "..and now for something completely different." As part of an effort to bolt out of the off-season rut I thought I'd take a look from a new, more artistic angle than my point-and-shoot skills normally offer.

Clicking through the spring issue (no. 10) of the e-zine Sporting Shot I found a piece on grouse hunting in Colorado and eventually drifted toward the author notes at the end to find that the female author (bit of a surprise) was Scottish (surprise getting bigger) and earns a living as a hunting/shooting photojournalist (now we're into the different part).

Melissa VolpiMelissa Volpi lives outside of St. Andrews in Fife, sacred ground to golfers (I'm told) and generally a very scenic plot in the land of bagpipes and tartans.  In addition to Sporting Shot her work has appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal here in the US and in a number of sporting publications in the UK. Melissa graciously agreed to talk with me about her work, her travels, wingshooting across the pond and various other topics.

You've published quite a bit of work for someone so young. Did you find breaking into the business easier or more difficult being a woman?

There are definitely advantages to being a woman in this industry. Even in 2012 there are still more men involved in shooting than women – and for this reason I think people become intrigued by new female members and are eager to encourage their participation. But I also think, as far as breaking into the business goes, that it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female – you just have to offer the right work to the right Editor and it’s this aspect, and this aspect alone, that I’ve found quite challenging.

I have been lucky enough to find a buyer for every article I’ve written. It's been a great learning experience for me and it still is. I write for myself first, and then try to sell the finished story. And stories are what my articles are – they’re not reports or what I would class as journalistic features. For a start, most of them are around the 2500 word mark, so it isn’t always easy trying to place this kind of piece. I’ve had rejections in the past three years – not because Editors haven’t enjoyed my articles, but because they are longer, written in the first person and contain a lot of dialogue.

My writing style isn’t commonplace within the shooting press, but there is a market for it – as I’ve found. I think this is more to do with it being written from a different perspective than because I’m a woman, though.

Was there anyone in particular who influenced you, mentored you, or encouraged you?

I really have been lucky to meet some memorable and interesting characters and each one has taught me something different about the industry and about people in general. From a reclusive Highland gamekeeper with a fondness for Sushi to gunsmiths who spend over 700 hours engraving a shotgun, but who never actually fire one to a hunter who accidentally wounds an animal, but doesn’t mind you naming him and writing about it for the shooting press, each one has taught me that people are surprising and impossible to place once you really get to know them.

There are three people who top my list though: Nigel Tanburn, my university professor, James Marchington, my first editor and Ernest Hemingway, whose books I have devoured time and time again.

Nigel was a shooting man in a past life and encouraged me to bring my interest in country sports into the classroom – even though no other member of my class was going down this route. If it wasn’t for Nigel, I would never have contacted the team at Purdey to ask if I could do a photo-essay on how a shotgun is made – which was the beginning of everything for me.

When I showed my images to James Marchington, he offered me a two-week work experience placement, which eventually led to a part-time job as Editorial Assistant at Sporting Shooter magazine. During the 9 months that I was there, James encouraged me to go out and write feature articles – something I had never attempted before – and it was this experience that made me want to write and photograph about country sports full-time.

Then there’s Ernest Hemingway. After reading A Moveable Feast, Fiesta, The Sun Also Rises and Green Hills of Africa, I decided that storytelling was for me. His books come alive because he writes in the first person and makes you feel part of the adventure – and it’s these qualities that I strive for in my own writing.

And like Hemingway you've given your passport a workout.  Tell me about one of the more interesting episodes in your travels....

This is a hard question to answer – as they have all been unique and entertaining. My European trips to France, Spain and Croatia definitely stand out though – probably because I joined local people on these hunts, instead of flying out there as part of a British shooting party.

I visited a group of hunt riders in the Loire valley to take part in the famous Chasse a Courre and ended up renting a horse aptly named Gigolo. There was the time I joined a French boar hunt and was kissed 50 times, by 25 different men, in fifteen minutes – due to the French custom of greeting your guests with a kiss on each cheek.

Once in Croatia when we were stalking wild boar on foot the guide said to the hunter I was with, “Don’t worry, there is a wide ditch between us and the boar. So there is plenty of time to shoot,” only for the boar to jump the ditch and head straight at us. Quite an exhilarating moment as that estate is renowned for its Oscar worthy boar, weighing nearly 300kg and with tusks reaching up to 33cm in length.

But the funniest episode has to be when I was shooting partridge in Spain for the first time. I’ve never had so many people helping me while standing at a peg. There was Antonio, my loader. Pedro, my secretario (bird counter) and Raquel who was my translator. None of the Spaniards use hearing protection but you really need it on driven partridge days. I love this picture because it shows perfectly what happened ten minutes into the shooting – everyone put their fingers in their ears. 

Spanish bird hunt

It was when Pedro started hammering what looked like giant green lollipops into the earth that it really became interesting though. “These are to remind the hunters not to shoot down the line,” Raquel informed me. If you had seen these metal stands, you would understand how terrified for my safety I became on hearing this – as most look worse than a target used for shotgun pattern testing.

For our American readers, can you compare bird hunting in the United Kingdom to your experiences in the States?

In Colorado, the day was all about the dogs and the grouse – nothing else mattered. The rules were few – wear something fluorescent, take a water bottle and blow on your whistle three times in case of an emergency – and once mentioned, everyone split up and walked up different parts of the mountain with their dogs. It was only during the odd break, or once your bag limit was reached, that you all came together again as a group.

In Scotland, walked-up grouse days are a much more formal affair. The head keeper and his team are dressed in their estate tweeds. Hunters walk across the moors in a line, for safety reasons, with the head keeper at one end and the under keeper at the other – with both constantly discussing what’s happening at each end on walkie-talkies. Scottish grouse shooting really is as well managed as an orchestra.

driven grouse hunt

Bag limit was another major difference. In Colorado, the bag limit was three blue grouse per day and two sharp-tailed grouse per day. In Scotland, there is no limit throughout the grouse-shooting season.

In Scotland, it’s common to have ‘Buck shot’ during the breaks from shooting – buck shot is a kind of alcoholic game consomm√©. But in Colorado, it was dark chocolate containing bits of streaky bacon that was passed around! It’s these little quirks that make a trip, I think.

The differences in temperature are another factor. We hunt grouse in Scotland from the 12th of August and although the days are still long and mostly sunny, the temperature is much cooler – and, in my opinion, much better for hunting. In Colorado, the temperatures rose from 65 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 degrees Fahrenheit in a couple of hours – and this was on a September morning! I got myself pretty fit by walking 10 miles three to four times a week before flying out there. But, between the heat and the mountains, I was definitely the only member of that hunting party who struggled – which is saying something, considering I am 29 and the other members of the party were in their 40’s.

Rest assured the temperatures get cooler in Colorado as the season progresses. Back to some professional topics, you studied photojournalism in college - when did you focus (bad, bad pun) on wingshooting?

It wasn’t until my second year at University that I started focusing on gun making, wing shooting and stalking. Before that I photographed everything from London film premieres to The Royal Caledonian Ball to Badminton horse trials and 18th century masked events during the yearly carnival in Venice.

And even though I really enjoyed photographing all these personal projects as part of my course, it wasn’t until I started focusing on field sports that I felt truly interested in my subject. I’ve met a lot of lovely people throughout the past few years, but the ones I hold most dear are involved in this industry in some way.

What makes a great photograph of a bird dog or a hunter?

I like portraits that tell you a little about the subject's personality, whether that be a hunter or his dog.  For me, it’s about capturing something that's a little bit quirky and unplanned. I do take set up shots occasionally – as sometimes it’s necessary – but I’ve taken my best shots when hunters have forgotten
I’m there.

Scottish dog handler
I took this photo on a Perthshire moor, during a day of walked-up grouse. This dog was in love with the keeper and rushed to his side at every opportunity. I took this shot when the keeper was
deep in conversation with the dog’s owner and I love it because they both have the same expression and stance.

Scottish hunting dogsThis shot contains the same pointer and I took this it because it really shows you each dog’s personality. The pointer is graceful and proud. She’s doing her job but, if you look closely, you can see she’s leaning into her owner, which betrays her inexperience and vulnerability – true, as this was one of her first outings on the moors. Where as the lab is relaxed and waiting eagerly for the fetch command.

And this photo is the hardest shot I’ve ever done. This gamekeeper was so reluctant to have his picture taken that I had to hide in the heather to get this shot – and I was there for a while! It was taken during a driven partridge day in Angus, when he was walking up the line checking each hunter before the drive began. For me, the clouds and his kilt made the shot. A gamekeeper in a kilt is not something you see very often, even in Scotland.

Scottish gamekeeper

What I will say is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re photographing people or animals, the best picture is one in which you’re capturing an intimate moment. That’s the kind of picture that we can all relate to and take something from.

I took this picture and I love it – not just because of the natural light but because Rebus, the golden Labrador, is looking adoringly at his owner. The owner’s pose was a set up shot, but the dog's loving gaze was not. It’s little details like this that are priceless.

In the last photo of the article in Sporting Shot, the one where you're holding the hard-earned grouse, those have to be the most fashionable pair of shooting glasses I've seen. As they say at the Oscars, Who are you wearing?

I’d love to say that I was wearing designer shades… but they are an inexpensive pair I bought from a local department store in Dundee, Scotland.  I don’t normally wear shades when shooting, but the strong Colorado sun made it impossible not to on that trip.

Thanks for taking a few minutes to share your story.  Before we go, I know of a certain element among our readers who would be severely disappointed if I didn't ask for some local knowledge of Scotland's most famous export.  St. Andrews isn't exactly in the heart of single malt country but do you have a favorite?

I do, I drink Edradour – it's Scotland's smallest distillery. On shoot days I do a 50/50 mix of Edradour and Sauternes. It's not a common concoction here, but I took this to Colorado with me and everyone seemed to love the combination.

(ED:  Thank me later.)

Visit Melissa's site at


  1. I don't bird hunt, but I found this incredibly interesting. Thanks for the great interview and compelling read to you both!

    1. Thank you for the lovely comment – it makes me happy to hear that you enjoyed it.

    2. Glad you liked it Erin. There's only room for a handful of obsessions in any one life, but if fly fishing ever wears thin on you this bird hunting thing fills a lot of void. Some people even find time for both, though I haven't really mastered that yet.