Am I a photographer? No. Do I take photographs? Mostly no. So why am I writing a post on photography in Mongolia?
Because when I was biking home through Ulaanbaatar yesterday and I observed a group of westerners with cameras almost chasing a group of older Mongolian’s wearing deels I felt embarrassed.
We host photography groups each year and these are some of the tips passed on from them. This is not advice about landscape versus portraiture or of finding a foreground. This is photography advice with a more cultural focus.
You’re Not The First
Mongolians have encountered many westerners before. Mongolians and the ethnic groups of Mongolia are not undiscovered tribes and you will not be the first or last person they have hosted. They are a modern people who have welcomed visitors from all over the world, and confront many of the same challenges as the rest of the modern world.
Mongolians and groups such as the Kazakhs are warm and welcoming. But although they are curious they are not typically that talkative. They can also be stubborn, taciturn, reserved and indifferent. They certainly do not like displays of impatience, superiority, arrogance or anger.
Ditch The Stereotype
Mongolia is so much more than nomads, Kazakh eagle hunters, the Tsaatan reindeer herders and the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians are not a museum exhibit – iDitch the images that simply perpetuate the stereotypes of Mongolia and aim for a more honest portrayal of real life.
Take time to get to know your subject. Have a conversation, get a feel for the space around you. If possible, don’t even pick up your camera. Drink the tea that’s offered to you – actually, drink two bowls. Even if the light is perfect.
Once your subject feels comfortable with you, they’ll share parts of themselves with you and your camera, which make for much more rich and honest portraits.