Are we a group of professional photographers? No. So why this post on photography in Mongolia? Because when I was recently biking home through Ulaanbaatar I observed a group of westerners with cameras almost chasing a group of older Mongolian’s wearing traditional deels I felt embarrassed. Although we are not photographers ourselves we host photography groups each year and work in partnership with photographers. 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 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 – it’s the 21st Century. Ditch 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.
The Mongolian concept of time will definitely differ to yours. And remember, your hosts have a life to lead and a daily workload. If they’re herders, herding their livestock is integral to their way of life and comes first over your photography. Also, as in our everyday lives, sometimes plans change.
And Mongolians themselves have cameras – everything from an iPhone to a Canon or Nikon. If you’re taking photos of them and they ask to take photos of you, of course, you should accept.
We’re not a specialist photography company but we do provide the logistics for and host photography trips each year for a range of photographers and photography companies. If you would like to learn more about the Mongolia trips and experiences we offer, please take a look.