This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, stories, goals and learnings along the way.
Richard Curtis is a photographer based in London. Richard talks here about his once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the eagle hunters of Mongolia with a BBC cameraman and witness their ‘Nadaams’, traditional games based around ‘three manly sports.’
Q: To start, can you give me an overview of your project, its title and its main theme?
A: I’ve always wanted to visit Mongolia. Last year I read up on what is known as the land of the big sky, and in particular the local western culture and festivals that the people celebrate. I found that Mongolia has a large number of eagle hunters, as well as having a very short summer, in which they hold ‘Nadaam’ festivals. Nadaam festivals translate to simply ‘games’. Local Nadaams are also sometimes referred to as ‘Eriin Gurvan Naadam’ meaning ‘three manly sports.’
Nadaams at Weddings
Nadaams are used to celebrate many types of occasions, including weddings or spiritual gatherings. We had the wonderful opportunity to attend a traditional Kazakh Mongolian wedding, which had the most spectacular background of the Altai Mountains.
Mongolian food in general is an important part the culture and heavily reliant on the kind of foods that are suitable to a nomadic lifestyle; dishes are based on meat and fat from camels, mutton, cattle and yak, as well as a variety of dairy products. Milk is also used to make many things including regular salty tea, as well as butter, cheese and other foods, and can be used to welcome visitors into a family Gare.
The Kazakh Mongolian wedding day pictured here, much like when visitors arrive, started with the bride getting ready and dairy snacks, laid out in the bride’s family Gare. A special part of the weddings was where mare’s milk is served from a large bowl just after the ceremony and freshly killed lamb served as the main meal. Mare’s milk (Airag) is fermented by the local family and contains between 7% and 8% alcohol.
The Nadaam events are held after the wedding ceremony, and the first event at this wedding was the wrestling. Wrestling, or bökh as it is know in Mongolia, is centuries old and is not played in a ring, but an open grassy field. The goal of a match is to get your opponent to touch his upper body, knee or elbow on the ground.
The last event of the Nadaam and always the highlight for the spectators is the horse race. Horse races in Mongolia are very different to those in the West, which tend to consist of short sprints generally not much longer than two miles. Mongolian horse races are cross-country events, raced across the Mongolian valleys, which can between 12–25 miles long with lots of horses.
The jockeys (children from 5 to 13), are an important element to the race, but the main purpose of the races is to test the skill of the horses. The accompanying image shows the final strides of the horse race, with the race marshals and fathers running in to slow the horses down.
With horse races lasting for a few hours or more between each one, there is always some down time. This can be fun with social interactions, like parties, music and dancing. During the gaps between the races other entertainment can happen, like the image of a local rider who likes to stand on the horse.
On rare occasions, the local people hold Buzkashi. Buzkashi is the traditional sport of Afghanistan, but was previously banned under the Taliban regime. This traditional sport is a highly competitive game and involves horse mounted players who traditionally drag and fight in a tug of war style a disembowelled and decapitated goat, then throw it to the floor when its been won. The Buzkashi competition shown here used a rag as a replacement for the goat. The Buzkashi can be very fierce when all the riders and horses come together.
The western part of Mongolia hosts many eagle hunters, one of which is Silau (below). Silau is an eagle hunter who we met at the wedding. He asked if we would like to join him and his sons on a hike to check and collect the Balapan. A Balapan is a two-year-old baby eagle that nests within the mountains. Silau had already identified this Balapan as a new bird to train for future years.
Near the local western town of Ulgi, the 90th Anniversary Nadaam was taking place. At this larger Nadaam, we had the chance to see an archery competition. Archery is the only game in the Nadaam that is played by both male and female competitors.
Q: What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
A: For this trip I took the Leica M ( Typ 240) with my standard lenses from the Summicron range, comprising of 35 mm, 50 APO and a 90 APO. I also had the opportunity to take the new Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) for my black-and-white work. I like shooting with the Monochrom because I find it pulls texture and details out of the scene, which is different to the way that colour images are captured.
With the dusty environment, horses, dark skin and interesting faces, this camera and the Summicron lens combination would help to tell the story of this wonderful nomadic culture.
I also always take my Lee Graduated Filters and Neutral Density Filters just in case I’m shooting photographs and need a shallow depth of field in bright daylight, or I am shooting landscapes with moving water. I also took my Zoom H6 for audio, just in case I needed to shoot some video on my M240.
Q: Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?
A: When you go somewhere that is completely new, everything is engaging and there is a want to photograph everything, kind of a trigger-happy moment for at least the first few days.
Once the excitement is over it’s time to settle and work out what the project(s) will be about, and this usually takes a little time and patience. Somebody once gave me some great advice, and recommended that the first few days should be experienced without a camera, as this can give perspective and time for projects to be created.
Once a few projects have been identified, I find it much easier to focus on what images are needed to help tell the story and what not to take photographs of. One benefit of this technique for me, is that it tends to lead to better and a higher quality of pictures to select from when I get back home. To be honest though, I still can’t leave my camera at home on those first few days, and I do like to get carried away with the visual excitement of everything. However, the projects always appear at some point.
Some of the events, especially the horse racing and Buzkashi are very fast paced, so judging the decisive moment, and getting the correct focus point can be extremely challenging. It did lead to a few missed shots.
Great backgrounds make great photographs, something which cannot be taken for granted. From the Mongolian experience, I definitely appreciated hunting out a great background, then placing my subject matter, even if it involved posing someone.
A take away from this experience is that including many complimentary elements in the scene, as well as a human presence can make the final image much more exciting and engaging.
Fixers. These people are the key to successful photographs. We had great fixers on this trip, which made the culture more accessible and thus easier to photograph and get better pictures. As a reflection, we met a couple of other photographers, who were having a miserable time in Mongolia all because they didn’t have the right fixers in place who had the correct local knowledge to open up the opportunities.
Q: Please tell us a little more about yourself.
A: I have been taking photographs for over 20 years with a view to just documenting my life and its surroundings. I came from the film days and moved into digital photography about ten years ago. I bought my first Leica camera two years ago (the M240) and recently had the opportunity to go back to classic photography by buying a Leica M-A and started to use film as part of my work once again.
I also love to print. Whilst I enjoy printing with inkjet, I’m very passionate about alternative printing, and have been making platinum prints using digital negatives for a while now. This process was founded in the 18th century. Apart from making a digital negative and printing it on acetate, the wet processing side of it hasn’t changed. But this is a life project, one that I’ll continue as and when I get time to devote to it.
Thank you for your time, Richard!
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Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 9,000 members. Olaf co-teaches workshops with Eileen McCarney Muldoon on creative photography at Maine Media College, Rockport and Street Photography in Brooklyn.