When I was a kid, I became obsessed with Mongolia. The history—invasions of Genghis Khan, dominance of the known world from Europe to Japan and Siberia to Indonesia; the beautiful landscape; the amazing faces and features of the people. It all intrigued me.
In 2000, I made my first trip, just to get a glimpse. That trip became the beginning of a six-year project, “Seen in Mongolia,” in which I captured a country undergoing great change. What follows are highlights of what I learned and experienced while exploring this land of extremes. . .
The Mongolian people are warm and intriguing and take great pride in their country. To capture the diversity of the Mongolian people, I traveled to the most populous cities and the remotest villages.
Local guides were my greatest asset throughout the six-year project. They helped me understand local systems, customs, language, and eccentricities. One guide in particular proved invaluable. Fluent in English and Mongolian, Enhkdul taught me how things work and don’t work, about ceremonies, particularly in the countryside, and helped explain the reason for my trips to the local people, over and over again.
He had an uncanny way of knowing when it was appropriate to ask to take a photograph, which freed me up to focus on the images I wanted to capture. Before asking to take a photograph, we had to gain the people’s trust and confidence, which required patience and efficiency on my part—patience waiting for the right moment and efficiency moving quickly when that time came.
Another lesson I learned on my early trips was to acquiesce to the Mongolian rhythm. The people can be quite unpredictable and sometimes downright frustrating. I learned that an average day could turn into a life-threatening situation with stunning and unexpected visual moments, so I did minimal planning.
Participating in the rituals of the Mongolian people is crucial to establishing that trust. Villages always have a spare “ger,” or tent, for any traveler. When I arrived, they would offer me chai tea, made of cow’s milk, salt water and Russian tea, and homemade cheese or meats. In return, I would offer sugar and salt or cigarettes and candy, paper, and pens for the children. I always made sure to have some sort of gift.
Each trip I took and each day I spent had the same objective: reach the target destination. I seldom returned to the same part of the country, because I wanted to show the depth and breadth of the country and its people.
Yet, even this objective came with serious challenges. We traveled by car, in an old Russian Tupolev plane, and by riding on the back of a horse or camel. We dealt with natural obstacles like frozen lakes; getting stuck in surprise snowstorms and working frantically to free ourselves to avoid freezing, and surviving dehydration in the Gobi Desert.
Travel to certain parts of the country required cutting massive amounts of red tape. After so many years of a Soviet-run administration, Mongolia is still extremely slow and the leadership remains corrupt. From my guide, I learned quickly when to offer money and how much to enter the capital city or travel to the countryside with the military.
One time, the amount of money requested exasperated me and I decided not to pay and make a run for it. I ordered my driver to cross the military line near the Chinese border. Because my guide had taught me about the Mongolian system, I was able to take this calculated risk knowing I had little to fear. The outcome was amazing. The military finally caught up with us, but not until after I had the photos I needed. We were ordered to follow the soldiers to the closest military base, where they kept me for a day. After a pretty loud argument with a colonel, they threatened to throw me in jail.
A few hours later, I was drinking and eating with them, and taking portraits of soldiers on the base. I paid a fine and was released later that day.
Domestic travel in Mongolia can be extremely difficult, so simplicity was key, especially with equipment. I brought a few hundred roles of Kodak Portra 400 VC and 160 VC films, my Pentax 6x7 with three lenses—55mm, 100mm, and 200mm—light meter, tripod, and a 12x12 black backdrop for portraits. I shot 95 percent of the project in daylight, only using the flash on my most recent trips.
I chose the Kodak Portra VC films because Mongolia is a country of dramatic colors with a different kind of light than we see in the West. The Kodak VC films bring an extra vivid quality to the already warm color of the country.