Why this post on responsible 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.
Mongolians have encountered many westerners before. Mongolians and members of the ethnic groups of Mongolia such as the Mongol Kazakhs 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 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.
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 when you first meet or enter their home. Instead, relax, drink the tea that’s offered to you (depending on the situation) – 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.
Such a simple rule but so important. As a photographer, the responsibility of asking for permission before you take a photograph rests solely on you. It is as simple as having the camera in your hand and gesturing to someone as if seeking their approval. If they say no, shake their head or put their hand up in front of their face as a sign then just accept that they are not comfortable with having their photo taken.
As already mentioned, if you slow down and take the time you can be more creative in your thinking and use your camera as an ice-breaker. Take a picture of a different view or aspect and take time to show the photo to the person you would like to capture (another option is to do the same with a mini Bluetooth printer or a Polaroid camera). You may find that photography instantly becomes more fun and less intimidating. Although more rural Mongolians have access to a camera through their phones, often they don’t actually have physical photos.
In addition, part of Mongolian culture is to look as good as you can according to your circumstances. Often female Mongolian herders or women working in local markets will be wearing ‘work clothes’ and want to change or ‘freshen’ up before having their photo taken. Yes, it changes your composition but learn to be flexible.
And consider the fact that we have a responsibility towards children; especially in keeping them safe. This involves putting children first and treating them as you would your own.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
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.
‘… payment can cause all kinds of issues – from the faking of culture (costumes, ceremonies) to gain cash, to encouraging begging. And never pay children – even with sweets or toys. As well as discouraging them from attending school, it is just ethically wrong.’
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 have to accept.
We’re not a specialist photography company but we do provide the logistics for and host responsible photography trips in Mongolia each year for a range of photographers and photography companies who benefit from the long-term community partnerships we have created countrywide. If you would like to learn more about the Mongolia trips and experiences we offer, please take a look.