LIKE ALL WORTHY QUESTS, MY FASCINATION WITH MONGOLIA BEGINS WITH A STORY. A STORY THAT TURNS ITSELF LIKE POLISHED STONE WITHIN MY FINGERS.
This is a tale I have replayed so often since childhood, that when I close my eyes, the characters appear, fully defined, as if I could touch them. At the center is my grandfather, Louis, a young French soldier fighting in World War II. I see him then in black and white, even though when he sat me on his knee, decades later, to tell his story, he was colorful in every way imaginable. It was as if my grandfather had grown up through a period of time when everything existed only in shades of black and grey, as if the entire world with its violence and scarcity had the color sucked right out of it.
But then he would tell the part about the Mongol army. About how he was captured and sent to a German prison camp with British, American, and French soldiers. How the camp was eventually liberated, late in 1944, by a small and mighty troop fighting alongside the Allies against the Germans. They were the Mongolian People’s Army, established as a secondary army under Soviet command. As a young child, to hear my grandfather tell it, these liberators loomed large in vibrant, audacious color, a brilliant contrast to the stark landscape that surrounded them all.
I was seven or eight years old when my grandfather would tell me this story, and I remember the grin on his face and the tears in his eyes as he told his tale: “The Mongol army charged the prison and the Germans were scared to death at the sight of them. Never before had anyone seen a people like this. They were fierce and the Germans ran away. They ran for their lives.” He told me that afterwards the freed soldiers and the Mongols kept hugging one other and celebrated long into the night.
This is how my grandfather’s life was saved.
As a young boy this account had a massive impact on me. That mysterious Mongol Army of men who saved my grandfather’s life; they saved my life.
THE NAME HAS ALWAYS LINGERED IN MY MIND AS A COUNTRY WITH A MYTHICAL CONNOTATION.
When I got older, I worked as a photo assistant to a high-end fashion photographer in New York, learning the craft and saving a bit of money. For three years I was absorbed in that world of fashion, which was very glamorous and comfortable, but I was most attracted by the travel and began to long for more. At some point, I determined to go to Mongolia and see the place with my own eyes. In the summer of 2001, I took a month and set off.
While I brought my cameras on that first trip, a bit of equipment and film, I was mostly thrilled to put the experience of traveling first. This journey was more a pilgrimage. I have since returned almost annually for fifteen years, driven by a desire to capture the majesty and serene nature of the Mongolian landscape and inhabitants through my photography. At first I sought to discover the country of my imagination, but with every trip, my relationship with the land and its people deepened and became my own.
“Even when quite a child I felt two conflicting sensations in my heart: the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.” — Baudelaire, Intimate Journals
On that first trip to Mongolia in 2001, I took a photograph of a mother and her infant son at their home on the shores of Üüreg lake, in the western part of the country. I traveled with an easy to pack, black piece of fabric. The light in this country is so beautiful and the fabric was capable of diffusing it to great effect, especially when shooting portraits of people.
Five years later, in 2006, I returned to the region where this family had once resided and sought them out. I often make small prints for the people I photograph and, if lucky enough to see them again, I like to give them as gifts. People in Mongolia, especially in the countryside, live great distances from each other and do not typically have access to this type of technology. I asked my guide to help me find this particular family as most in this area tend to be nomadic and the surroundings are constantly changing. We drove around the area asking people if they knew where we might locate them. Eventually, someone recognized the family and showed us the way.
We arrived, as you do in this part of the world, completely unannounced. The family remembered me, gave us a warm greeting and served us a tea. After we had eaten, I pulled out the photograph and handed it to the couple.
The mother picked up the picture, looked at it and there grew a void, her face filled with great sadness as she left the room. Her husband picked up the photograph and stood, his eyes swelling with tears. Their baby, he explained, had died of a virus three weeks after our first visit. They had never seen any picture of him. Here was this image allowing a mother and father to reconnect to their lost son. For a moment, it was like a resurrection—that powerful. My guide and I drove the four hours back in complete silence, as if we were under the spell of what had just happened. It was one of the most profound moments I have ever felt, creating that deepest human connection.
“There is not a particle of life, which does not bear poetry within it.” — Gustave Flaubert
While in the countryside, especially, you can feel the influence of Buddhism. In every ger, the Mongolian term for their traditional tents, you will find a small altar with a Buddhist icon. In each village there is a monastery. It is a subtle presence, one felt primarily in how people relate to life. Death is a passage, a journey. It happens, it is anticipated as part of the life cycle. Does death trigger sadness? Yes, but life goes on. The religious culture is something that seems to create an overall sense of morality. In my experience, Mongols are extremely fair people. You ask their point of view and they tell you precisely what they think.
In Mongolia, nothing happens the way you want or expect.
For me, coming from a western culture where everything is linear, this was an awakening. If you are traveling, you only know when you are leaving, never when you will arrive. I found that amazing. In a country as immense as this, the elements are so powerful there is no control. There may be a snow or sand storm. Things that can physically prevent you from moving forward on your journey. You cannot continue… until you can.
I have learned that most of the time when things are not going as planned, that is often when the situation is the most visually exciting. We have to go a different direction than where we came from and stay one more night all because of a flat tire. But, that is when something special happens. We end up saying afterwards, “Wow. Mind blown.”
Take, for example, the following series of images, which illustrate exactly the type of unexpected scenarios that gift themselves to you while traveling through Mongolia. We had a plan to fly direct from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to Tsaatan lands, to visit reindeer herders on the Russian border, but for some reason our flight got canceled. This happens a lot. We had to stay one more night in the city, get on a different flight to somewhere further away, then rent a car and drive back across this vast lake, Khövsgöl, one of the biggest lakes in Mongolia. This arduous journey, all to reach the town we were originally attempting to fly to directly. I was fuming. I had just three weeks for this trip and now I was losing two entire days.
During the winter months, this lake is completely frozen, often an ice layer of up to six feet, and instead of taking the dirt road, often filled with potholes and hard to navigate, trucks and cars travel directly across the iced over lake. There is a risk, of course. As the drive went on, the truck we were following suddenly began to collapse into the ice, without any warning.
A warmer wind from the south had been blowing in recent days, making the upper layer of ice more fragile. Everyone in our vehicle shouted out in shock “Arrgh!” and we stopped as far away as possible, as the ice in the epicenter was quite fragile. While we contemplated the situation, the owner of the truck, who had at first abandoned it, along with the other passengers, walked back to the vehicle to retrieve his belongings. While he was still in the truck, we heard a massive roar. A roar so deafening we were surrounded by the thunderous sound echoing from the ice.
We knew something was about to happen. Everyone ran from the truck, as it sunk even deeper, seemingly fixed into the ice. Immovable.
What happened next?
Well, the Mongols are impressively strong willed and determined. They called for help and a few hours later a couple of other trucks arrived.
Together, the group waited for night to fall, so that the ice was again solid and reliable ground, and then they literally pulled it out of the ice. So badass.
That truck was filled with wood, likely bound for a construction site. There was too much potentially lost revenue trapped in that one ice circle. Fortunately, no one was hurt that day, but locals have told me stories of jeeps and trucks, loaded with occupants, disappearing entirely in the frozen lake after the ice had cracked, never to be heard of again. Only later did we realize how close we were to possibly meeting the same fate.
This lake was full of unusual surprises. Earlier the same day, we had come across two young men lying on the ice, in the middle of nowhere. We stopped the car and got out, but they did not move. They just stared. They were completely drunk, wasted. It was still morning! They were just lying there waiting for something.
I love the perspective, the color, and texture of the ice in this image. Knowing the strange backstory makes it even better. I had not planned this particular journey, but some of the most powerful images I shot during that trip happened thanks to that canceled flight. In these types of consistently disruptive circumstances, an overall shift in perspective takes place. In retrospect, the entire experience turned out to be perfect.
Looking back, all my visits to Mongolia have been marked by unexpected moments like these. One place in particular is layered with memories. Many years ago, when I first arrived on the Trans Siberian railway, with no plans and little idea of a destination, I saw a tiny blue dot on the map, in the far west of the country. I could just make out the words, Üüreg Nuur, a lake. Somehow attracted to it, I decided that was where I was going to go. A few days later, I took the picture of the mother and her baby son, and over the years, I have returned many times, making friends and photographing most of the families living there. I have seen toddlers become teenagers, teenagers grow into young adults, and older men pass away. The full cycle of life.
Last summer, I returned to Üüreg Lake once again, in June, traveling with two local guides. At some point we stopped because we came across a group of herders who had all of their sheep laid down by the water so they could shear them. When I pointed my camera towards this man, he lifted the sheep high up above his head. It was completely unexpected. Intrigued, I shot a few frames and then asked him, “Why did you do that?” He said, “I don’t know — it is something I have always wanted to do.” Often photography inspires a certain playfulness and spontaneity; there is something fundamentally human about posing for a camera.
Perhaps, above all, in this country, I have learned how to adapt.
Nothing unfolds as you might first imagine, but these unanticipated moments bring rich and beautiful gifts. Traveling here has brought me a new perspective, even some wisdom, particularly as it relates to being attached to expectations and schedules. Over time, I have relaxed my grip on the rigidity of my own culture and let go enough to accept what will be. I have applied this in my everyday life. Even if I am on an intense shoot for a commercial job, I now trust that everything will eventually work out just fine.
“A strong cold wind gets up from the W.N.W — that is to say, at our back — but we are on a desolate steppe, where we can find neither shrub nor anything else which can help to combat the cold that it is beginning to be unpleasant. On the other hand, we come upon some very pretty flowers, lovely wild pansies and edelweiss that would delight the heart of an Alpinist.”
FRENCH EXPLORER, GABRIEL BONVALOT
Across Thibet, The Mongols, 1891
You will find two contrasting dimensions in Mongolia, bound both by culture and geography. It is the 19th largest country in the world, yet there are only three million people living there. Close to half that population is located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, today the country’s industrial and financial heart, where technology has evolved considerably.
Meanwhile, the rest of Mongolia’s people are dispersed all over the country in small villages and towns, with some thirty percent still choosing a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life, moving across the land with their horses. People may have a satellite dish or cell phone, but connection is erratic. Here, life is very slow; it hasn’t really changed over time.
Vast plains and beautiful landscapes are the hallmark of these remote lands. The air is pure. The food is very simple. Essentially, a meal is meat that has been taken from a sheep killed that morning and cooked with some flour. The customary tea is called suutei tsai and made with mare’s milk and salt. My initial physical experience in Mongolia is always an exponential energy increase from the combination of fresh air, vast open space, outdoor activity, and unprocessed food intake. It is amazing. It toughens you up — all that vitality and energy.
There is a spiritual effect as well. Mongolia, overall, is a very flat country, and you can see for many kilometers. Nothing to obstruct you. Somehow, being able to see so far away brings you back to the moment, to where you stand right now. You float through that space. There is a reflection that delivers your own reflection directly back to you. This sense of place and of self, it centers you. In Mongolia, I am able to stay in the moment much more powerfully than other places. The strength and vibrance coupled with the spiritual energy from grounding in the present, is a restorative experience.
“Та өндөр бүтээхийг хүсэж байгаа бол, Хэрэв та гүн ухаж байх ёстой.” — If you want to build high, you must dig deep.
For years, I wanted to photograph the Kazakh, a robust people living in the extreme western part of the country high in the Altai Mountains, who traditionally hunt on horseback with golden eagles. In December 2015, the opportunity finally presented itself. I had two weeks; everything was arranged. The eagle hunters are all ethnic Kazakh their ancestors having fled to neighbouring Mongolia during the mid to late 19th century, in the face of the advance of the Russian Empire troops during the communist era. Some speak Mongol; many don’t. They are Muslim, rather than Buddhist, and for most of the 20th century they remained an isolated, tightly knit community.
Living by the ancient art of eagle hunting, I found them to be very generous, kind people. In Kazakh, the word qusbegi, or falconer, comes from the words qus (“bird”) and bek (“lord”), translating as “lord of birds.”
These days, however, only a few Kazakh are still traditional hunters. Some continue primarily for show, as there is a new tourist economy that can support the fading art form, especially each October, when eagle hunting customs are displayed at the Kazakh’s annual Golden Eagle Festival.
Winter in Mongolia often brings raw, biting winds, and extremely challenging conditions, so our journey to reach Kazakh lands was demanding. When we finally arrived, utterly exhausted, in temperatures of –30°C, I quickly became sick with a fever and was forced to stay in bed for seven days. I was deeply disappointed. My guide, and friend, Enkhdul, with whom I’ve crossed the entire country many times, in all seasons, from the Gobi Desert to Tsaatan lands in the extreme north, and from the eastern plains to the Altaii mountains in the far west, told me, “We are not leaving! You have been talking about coming here, to do this, for years.” So, I waited it out and got better. However, I had only three days to shoot everything.
The Kazakh community is quite incredible and their stories fantastic: how they proceed, scaling remote and cragged mountain peaks to find the eagle they will raise. The relationship that forms between the hunter and eagle has a special connection and symmetry that can only come from time and great care. Sometimes a hunter will work with an eagle for ten or twenty years.
As we were so far north, in the middle of December, the hours of daylight were few. The sun was consistently low on the horizon, casting a golden, soft light on everything and everyone it touched. But once the sun disappeared, the temperatures plummeted to a frigid –20°C. My analogue camera would jam and stop working completely, forcing me to end for the day. Once again, gifts and challenges.
Like so many other times in this vast and windswept country, my expectations did not match the reality. I had planned for two weeks and received a mere three days. But, those brief days surpassed anything I could have hoped for in quality and depth of relationship. Their grace and exceptional strength was tangible. Here, among the sweeping landscape and rugged way of life that shapes the inhabitants of this part of the world, I could imagine the men who rescued my grandfather.
While the heroic ferocity of my grandfather’s Mongol Army certainly inspired my obsession with this country, we are all products of our experience. Regardless of culture, each of us are indelibly shaped by the events and history of the generations that precede us. I may have first come to Mongolia in search of warriors, but I return again and again having discovered raw beauty and elegance in a country equally ethereal as it is grounded.
Maybe it is the influence of my professional background, but I have grown attuned to noticing elegance, even in the wildest places in the world. There is always a glimpse of quiet splendor, an angle that calls out something beautiful. Perhaps the knotting of a silk cord along a side pocket or a belt that is latched around a robe, maybe hair done a certain way. I am attracted to these graceful elements and know when I see them that I will make a photo.
All of this is an odyssey. In Mongolia, this journey is most often about shooting in difficult places and seeking the elegant angle. I found photography very late in my life, but am thrilled to discover the range of perspective it offers. It is a learning process that requires great sensitivity. There are constant questions: How am I able to emotionally perceive what I see? What will it take to tell this story in a unique way? All of this fascinates me. This is my passion project. After fifteen years, I have a much better sense of what makes my work distinctive. My sense is that over time, my images have become more artful. Still, this is a work in progress.
I am always exploring.
For years, I have been working to collect material for a retrospective book of my photographic work and experiences in Mongolia. In Fall of 2018, I will be publishing a limited collectible edition of 1,000 books in a large format (17 inches x 14 inches) with more than 250 pages. There will also be a handful of special editions that are offered with a signed print and a special book encasement. Follow along on my Instagram @fredericlagrange to keep up-to-date.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Photographer & Director based in Brooklyn, NYC shooting for a diverse range of clients worldwide. Capturing nuanced human stories through evocative color & black and white photography.