Mongolia. The word conjured up a vision in my mind of rugged, stern men and beautiful animals, immune to harsh winters, capable of conquering continents — last remnants of a dying age where man rather than political circumstance reigns the land, and where nature is still king even over the sturdiest of humanity.
Blood covered faces stumble down the streets of Ulaan Baatar, skin broken in frequent fist fights. In the rural outpost of Bayankhongor, men wear either traditional leather deels with a colorful sash, or an open shirt exposing a muscular chest. Women dress in western fashion, mascara, heels, pearls, and miniskirts. It seems a heightened environment where the overflow of testosterone may be tamed only by a barrage of tough feminine beauty.
The annual Naadam festival is a celebration of the rugged land and its people. Horse racing, wrestling, and archery, the three “manly” sports, are the featured events of fierce competition. We travel some thousand plus miles in an Soviet van, drinking in the beauty of the endless landscape, reveling in the Naadam festivities, camping beneath starry skies, bathing in freezing rivers, drinking airag (fermented mare’s milk), and rolling sheep anklebones in the oldest game of chance known to mankind.
The three-thousand year-old festival historically served a functive purpose of unifying the nomadic peoples in a celebration where alliances and friendships could be forged. Today, the Mongolian countryside still converges, either to Sum capitals for the competitions, or to nearby ghers with a satellite dish and TV tuned into the Ulaan Baatar festivities.
In the Genesis account of creation, God grants Adam dominion over the earth and all creatures in it. Ensuing Jewish theology held that chaos is evil and order good. A significant aspect of the human purpose, then, was to bring order to the turmoil of existence. Sitting in my living room in North Carolina, typing on a laptop, a space heater warming me, I unquestionably exist within the mastery humanity has obtained over environment. During a typical day, for all practicality, it matters little whether the forecast is a sunny seventy degrees or five below with a chance of sleet. The majority of my existence is spent indoors, isolated from all extremes. Save for disasters, rare enough to be considered anomalies, I exist in a world that has learned to control environmental chaos.
Mongolia flips my normal perception of existence on its head. Life on the steppe, to put it simply, is precarious. I see a horse die at the finish line of a race. I am informed it is a miracle the horses survive the winter with temperatures dipping to -70 degrees, let alone run a 20 kilometer sprint across the plains several months later. Summers are dry and grasses sparse. Life thrives, but only the toughest sorts; thick shelled grasshoppers, wind-tossed wildflowers and shrubs, yaks and camels with huge insulating coats of hair to protect from the bitter cold. Herdsmen inhabit transportable ghers lined with animal skins to insulate against the cold. For thousands of years, in vastness of the steppe, the Mongolian people have preserved meat, curdled milk to form cheeses, spending summers preparing for winters, offering a different definition of the word dominion. Not a gas guzzling, global warming dictatorship over the earth. Rather, dominion through a symbiotic process of utilizing every favorable element the land has to offer.
The herdsman leads his flocks into the greenest grasslands, erects his gher by a quiet brook, and out of twenty-five thousand miles of steppe chooses this one spot to wage his battle against the blizzards, droughts, and hardships. His answer to the harsh landscape is to aim small, focusing on one pasture, in one valley, only tending to as many herds as he can handle. He will cultivate, preserve, and put himself in a position so as to utilize any kindnesses nature will offer him. Similarly, I gravitate toward the small idyllic spot – be it one chiseled face among a crowd, the one young horseman with the piercing eye in a stampede of riders. Amidst the chaos of the finish line I find myself trying to isolate elements, measure light and aperture, wanting desperately to capture the impression I feel; that the Naadam races are not merely a competition against other riders, but a fusion of man and animal in a fight against the elemental forces of defeat. As horses thunder past I am struck by the transformation of young riders into virtual machines; glazed eyes, dust-caked faces, mechanically whipping exhausted animals across the finish line as if they are riding into eternity. Racers, the winners, disappear behind me, and I wonder if I should turn and run after them. But I linger, the sun at my back, the last horses bearing down on me. I wait, and wait, and SNAP. In the click of a shutter, the rider has come and gone. But I have it. The one stunning image that will survive as some twenty-five thousand others disappear into the murky files of memory. Out of the chaos of time and space, that one moment was given and passed, and now he is but a speck disappearing into the widest of earth.
Photography, to me, is an extension of the effort to harness and reign in chaos, to carve out order in the world. It provides a working framework to cement reality in my easily confused memory. It teaches me to consider an order in details I once took for granted – What makes this sunset beautiful? What makes that face so distinct? How do I most accurately and poetically describe the current situation in my world? It reminds me that I am still learning to see; to recognize and respond to significant moments as they arise.
Photography is about marking existence in a world where yesterday turns so easily to dust. In reality, I am no more secure in my living room than the herdsman on the steppe. Photography predicts of our common future – I have only once witnessed the death of a man, but I was prepared by photographs for the
glazed face and empty eyes. Out of the vague swirl of fear and emotions surrounding the end of life, the concrete photograph says: “Death looks like this.” Photography also reminds of our past – I have marveled at pictures of a baby inside the mother’s womb, the picture bursting with affirmation: “You are a miracle, you are significant! Out of the chaos of nothingness, You Are!”
Photography is a unique art – it does not create something out of nothing. But it recognizes and celebrates: something has been created from nothing and every something matters. This face, this landscape, this flower, this event: they are all significant. Pay attention. Notice the boy on his horse. Notice the woman milking her animals. Follow the herds, see where they go. Chase the sunset. Live. Document and take pleasure in that which you see!
“What, then, is worthy of a picture?” Mongolia? A horse-race? A weathered herdsman? A perfect landscape?
Yes, but more.
“All That Exists.”