Sven Zellner: Reportage on the Mongolian Upper Class

Sven Zellner has been a freelance photographer since 2010 after he graduated from the University of Television and Film Munich in cinematography. His photos have appeared in GEO, Terra Mater, ZEIT Leo, FAS and BBC Wildlife Magazine. He is represented by the agency FOCUS. In the past, he has documented the Great Mongolian Gold Rush and the life of Mongolian nomads. In the latest issue of LFI, his reportage on the Mongolian upper class in Ulan Bator appears, which he describes below.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: For me photography is a language and I want to tell stories through my photography. I concentrate on what interests me most and what I feel needs to be told. Most of the time I do it with documentary photography. I’m interested in people but I also sometimes photograph landscapes and wildlife.

Q: How do you think your work as a filmmaker, and your interest in wildlife and landscape photography, has influenced your documentary still photography? For example, do you think that it has honed your ability to tell stories with images?

A: My work as a filmmaker has influenced my documentary still photography and telling stories is, for me, very important. But some people also told me that my still images are like the shots from a film and they found it interesting. I think it is true but I never intentionally tried to create movie-like images. I use my intuition when I work and I can’t explain it. I try not to think so much about the composition but to focus on my protagonists and on what I want to tell. Maybe that is a filmmakers-like approach.

I started with wildlife photography because it really interested me. At the same time, I am a very shy person and I couldn’t photograph people in the beginning. It took many years for me to learn to approach people with my camera. When I photographed my project “Ninjas” about the illegal gold miners in the Gobi Desert, those people didn’t want to be photographed at all. But I was able to win their trust by spending time with them, sharing food and shelter and the high risk of going in the underground mines with loads of dynamite that only a few miners would do. Still, taking pictures of those people I sometimes felt like a thief and I asked myself many times what they are getting from me. I think I can give them a voice but do they really want that, do they need it? I don’t know.

Q: Can you provide some background information on your Ulan Bator reportage that appears in the latest issue of LFI? What’s it about? What inspired the idea?

A: I traveled to Mongolia many times. I went to the Gobi Desert to document the lives of nomadic people and the Great Mongolian Gold Rush. Every time I came to the capital city Ulan Bator I realized that it was changing at a rapid pace. I am interested in the Mongolian people and I wonder how the fast growing city with money coming in from the new mining boom affects their lives. It is amazing how quick many people with backgrounds in the nomadic culture have adapted to the new and always changing urban culture. Soon half of the population will be living in the city. It is a huge country that only 70 years ago was completely based on a nomadic society. Today Ulan Bator functions like a city-state within that vast country. It feels that the Mongolians are seeking a new identity. This was what interested me the most.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use to shoot this project?

A: I was shooting with an M9 and later with the Leica M. Most of the time I used my Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 ASPH. Sometimes only for a few photos I used the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH. and the Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH.

Q: What is it about an optical viewfinder camera that makes it especially suitable for this kind of assignment, and why do you generally favor the 35 mm focal length for your kind of work?

A: I want to be close to the people who I photograph. It would feel wrong to work from a distance. 35 mm is just wide enough to be a wide angle but you still don’t get problems with distortion. With the 35 mm I can be close but still getting a feeling of the place by showing some background.

Q: Given the challenges of photographing Ulan Bator’s reticent and photography-averse upper class in their posh clubs and hangouts, how well do you think you actually succeeded in capturing the essence of their culture and lives and in communicating it to viewers? What were a few of the things you would have liked to have shown, but were prevented from doing so?

A: I wanted to photograph the five richest men of Mongolia: Odjargal Jambaljamts, Chinbat Lhagva, Battulga Khaltmaa, B. Nyamtaishir and Batbold Sukhbaatar but I haven’t given up on that. I pretty much got what I wanted because I never gave up but I hope I can spend more time with the people I photographed and continue the project. I will also make a documentary film on those people but for now I’m seeking the right production for it.

Q: This image violates practically every rule of what makes a good picture. The top of the subject’s head is cut off, she is dead center within the frame, and nothing is really in sharp focus. Despite all this, it’s a very compelling picture that gives an excellent sense of her privileged social class, exalted sense of status, penchant for fashion and even her vulnerability. Do you agree, and what motivated you to take this picture and include it in this portfolio?

A: Yes I completely agree but I also don’t care about the rules and about sharpness. I think it is very difficult to make a good portrait of someone. I can’t explain it but I want something that is hard to get. It is very complex. It is a connection between me and the protagonist that rarely happens and when it’s there I have to grab it in less than a second. It pleases me how you describe Urangoo because it is what I wanted to tell. It is one of my favorite pictures because it is so close to what I feel I needed to tell about Urangoo. She gave me the opportunity to do it but still it is not easy to get it and I often fail.

Q: The female figure in the lower center hoisting a green bottle to her lips in this image transforms it into something iconic and evokes good times and revelry. It’s reminiscent of the Roaring ’20s. Where was this image taken and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release? Can you please provide the tech data including lens, exposure, ISO, etc.?

A: It was in Mass Night Club; I was there with Urangoo and some of her friends. It was forbidden to take photos and I had to be very fast. A security guard was close to the frame, luckily with his back towards me. Basically we were very drunk because Urangoo bought one bottle of Jack Daniels after the other. Therefore I took many photos, but for the security guards it is more difficult to keep a drunk man from taking pictures. Somehow Urangoo managed it so that I wasn’t thrown out and that no one took my camera because that happened to me in velvet club several times where I couldn’t really take photos. It was the M9, 400 ISO at f/2.0 and 1/30 of a second.

Q: Your portrait of a beefy tough guy looks like a nightclub bouncer. His raised fists and the out-of-focus frosted glass in the background certainly take it to another level graphically and it really sticks in your mind. Who is this guy, was he aware that you were taking his picture and did he give you permission to do so or was it just a grab shot?

A: Oh no. This is Kyokushūzan Noboru he is very famous in Japan and Mongolia. He was born as Davaagiin Batbayar in Ulan Bator. He is a former professional sumo wrestler and current politician of the Democratic Party. He was the first wrestler from Mongolia to reach sumo‘s top makuuchi division. He is a very nice person but I had only a few minutes to get some pictures of him. He was talking to us and I took the picture while he was explaining something. My partner asked him what a “Er hun” (a real man) is. The question made people laugh. Batbayar was serious. “I am the best answer to that question. I earned self-confidence through sumo wrestling, because it forced me to measure my strength against other men. I have lived like a Khan and have achieved everything through my own effort. I started out as a cleaner and had nothing. For that reason I also believe that my country will get ahead.”

Q: One image could be entitled “how the other half lives” except that the subject is perhaps a member of the 99% of Mongolian society that has not benefited from the mining boom. The naked bed spring behind him is a great touch and he seems to be holding his hand up as he squints from the bright sunlight entering his subterranean abode. Is this correct, and what’s actually going on here?

A: This is Battulag. He is 33 years old and has been homeless for about three years. He lives in the sewers to protect him in winter from temperatures up to minus 40 degrees centigrade in the world’s coldest capital city. When I was taking the picture he was lying on the place were he sleeps at night looking to the entrance hole. He closed his eyes and raised his hand. I don’t know why he did that. Maybe because he was looking at the bright spot of the entrance above. He is a very nice person and very warm person.

Q: One image is almost monochromatic and looks like another “underground living quarters” picture, but it’s rather enigmatic so can you explain what’s going on?

A: It is the entrance to the place were Battulag lives. His colleague Bat and Bat’s wife climb out while he is watching them. Inside it is very dark; the only light down there is coming through that hole and outside it is bright daylight. The people are climbing into that bright source of light and that is a difficult situation because there is almost only underexposed and overexposed areas in the image.

Q: This image has a lot of energy and the main subject in traditional dress seems to be doing a dance on ice reminiscent of the Russian Kazatski where you throw your feet out to the sides below you. The rosy hued clouds really transform this shot into a magic moment. Is my interpretation on target, and in any case who are these people and what’s actually happening?

A: I was taking a walk an the ice of the Tuul River. It was very cold and already getting dark and I met those Mongolian men playing ankle bone shooting on ice. They are shooting some kind of bones on the ice and try to hit a goal about 30 meters away. I didn’t know these men but they where really nice and they didn’t care about me taking pictures of them. I talked a little with them but they were really pretty much into the game.

Q: This image seems to be taken in a village outside Ulan Bator. What is being loaded or unloaded onto the truck? Can you tell us?

A: It is sheep meat being unloaded from that truck. The people at first didn’t want to be photographed and I entered their private property. Therefore I didn’t take pictures but I tried to stay because I really liked the situation. The man on the truck wanted to see my camera and he took it and didn’t give it back for a while and made jokes about that I will never get it back. When he gave it back I started to take the pictures and they agreed. I really understand them. It is not nice to come there and take pictures and to go away without even saying hello. They give something to me and it is not at all granted. They didn’t ask for money but let me take my pictures which I find amazing. Great people.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years and do you have any plans to document any additional places or sub-cultures in 2014.

A: I’m working on a project about young people in Greenland and the mining boom there. My other projects are on child poverty in Romania and on AIDS in Romania, but I will also continue my work on Mongolia.

Thank you for your time, Sven!

- Leica Internet Team

You can see Sven’s full reportage in LFI. Also available for the iPad. Learn more about Sven on his website and profile on FOCUS.