The Future Eagle Hunters of Mongolia
Last year, photographer and journalist Asher Svidensky travelled to Mongolia to document the Kazakh Eagle Hunters that lived in the western region of Mongolia.
Svidensky spent days with the eagle hunters’ families, learning about their way of life and how future generations will preserve the ancient tradition. The photos and story went viral and have been published in publications around the world. Svidensky was praised not only for his incredible photography but the storytelling and insights he shared.
We caught up with Svidensky to learn more about the project and the art of storytelling in the digital age. You can find our interview below along with excerpts from Svidensky’s story on the Eagle Hunters of Mongolia.
All of the incredible photos in the story below are available as various sized prints, which you can order directly through Asher’s online store. Be sure to check out his website for more amazing stories and images from around the world.
“I traveled north of Ulgii to the Chaulting area, a ridge nearby the Russian frontier. It is, by far, one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in all my travels to Mongolia. After having searched for quite some time and having visited a lot of different families, I had found 13-year-old Irka Bolen. He was the first boy I photographed for the project.” [source]
“Tradition-wise, when a boy turns 13, and he’s strong enough to carry the weight of a grown eagle, his father starts training him in the ancient hunting technique. They say, that in the Kazakh tradition, there’s over a thousand ways of training and hunting using the eagle, and each family masters their own special technique. Irka Bolen was the perfect beginning to my project, since I wasn’t dealing with an eagle hunter – but rather with a small boy embarking on the quest of learning the ways of his tradition. In my work with Irka Bolen I found it to be important that I show his training alongside his father on the mountain tops.” [source]
“I’ve learned that according to Kazakh tradition, it takes the hunters about five years to finish his training. After that, the boy must have a successful hunt, after which he would receive the ‘Eagle Hunter’ title. I wanted to find the youngest eagle hunter living in Mongolia – the first of his generation. In order to achieve this new goal, we had to take south, to a place called Hen Gohadok. There I met Bahak Birgen. Bahak Birgen is an unusual boy. When he turned 8 his father decided that he was strong enough for training, and began working with him before the common time. That’s how 14-year-old Bahak Birgen became the well known ‘Youngest Eagle Hunter in Mongolia’.” [source]
“It was a spectacular vision, seeing the connection between Bahak Birgen and his eagle. Usually, Kazakhs capture their eagle in his early years and raise him themselves. They feed the eagle, give him a warm place to rest in the cold Mongolian nights and they teach him how to hunt. Eight years later, in spring time, the hunter will take his eagle to the mountains, will lay a butchered sheep on one of the cliffs as a farewell present, and he will send his eagle away for the last time. That’s how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations. That is the Kazakh tradition’s way of living in harmony with nature.” [source]
“I’ve learned that Mongolia’s rough surface and difficult climate were the reason that the eagle hunting art was meant for men alone. I thought to myself that in a country where seventy percent of its educated population are women, and most of its education institutes are run by females – is it possible to think that the future of the art of eagle hunting tradition could also lean on feminine shoulders? I had gone looking for my eagle huntress..” [source]
“I found her in the form of Ashol Pan, the daughter of an experienced eagle hunter around Han Gohadok, which is south of Ulgii. She was perfect. I was amazed by her comfort and ease as she began handling the grand eagle for the first time in her life. She was fearlessly carrying it on her hand and caressing it somewhat joyfully.” [source]
At the end of the photographing session, I sat down with her father and the translator to say my goodbyes, and I asked him this:
“How did it feel watching your daughter dressed in Kazakh uniform, on a mountain top, sending the eagle off and calling it back again?”
“And honestly… would you have considered truly training her? Would she become Mongolia’s first ever female eagle huntress?”
I expected a straightforward “No” or a joking “Maybe”, but after a short pause he replied:
“Up until two years ago my eldest son was the successor of the eagle hunting tradition in our family. Alas, two years ago he was drafted to the army, and he’s now an officer, so he probably won’t be back with the tradition. It’s been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn’t dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place.”
From the father’s answer I realized that the idea of women’s participation in keeping the tradition is a possible future, but just like many other aspect of Mongolian life, it’s an option which women will need to take on by themselves.
This story was originally published on svidensky.com
Some of your most popular stories revolve around fading traditions and cultures. What draws you to history and preserving stories from the past?
I don’t think these traditions are “fading” and that they have to be preserved. If you think of it 99% of all cultures and tradition in history are…gone. It is human nature to change and evolve as we grow as a society. What I do think is that many of these Ancient cultures that still exist in our age are windows into our history, I believe these windows allow the viewer to look through them and forget for a little bit of his own life and imagine what would happen if he lived in that culture. This action of forgetting one’s self allows the viewer to look at a story and see the truth—that we are all human and there is really no difference between us. In all of my stories, the cultures themselves are not the main idea, they are more like “eye candies”. The really stories are about the people and emotions we can all relate to regardless of language and culture.
For example in my photo project on the Eagle Hunters of Mongolia, even though a big part of the story is about the eagle hunting art, the main characters are the young Kazakh kids who are going to be the ones taking that tradition to the future. An action many of us do every day as we think of our own future and what is expected of us.
Many of your stories involve people who probably do not do a lot of interviews and/or photo shoots. Do you think the presence of a camera alters the situation?
In high school I learned a bit on movie theater. I remember that they told us about the magic a camera brings to a situation and the fact the no matter what you do it will always affect the reality. I think that is true but I don’t think it is a bad thing, the search for a good image is usually just an excuse for me—my real goal is making a friend and learning something new. I use the camera and photography in general not only as a way to document things but as a way to build bridges that I can use to experience new things or allow others to invite me into their own world.
Your storytelling has involved writing, photography and video. Do you think one of these mediums is best for storytelling, or is a combination always best?
I don’t think that there is such a thing as a right answer when it comes to any sort of art form. I love the outcomes I get from mixing media and I plan to experiment with it as much as I can in the coming years.
In many of the workshops and lectures I did around the world, I always say that the more you know about photography the better. It is so useful to learn how professional photographers work with artificial light in a studio in order to get more unique documentary images and in the same time I don’t think that any studio photographer can make a good portrait of a person without training his communication skills as a documentary photographer on the streets.
The digital age has changed the way stories are told. What do you see it evolving into in the future?
I believe that the more digital we get the bigger the demand for photography will get. Photography is already everywhere. I think that the photography world will have to grow and improve as an art form, making “pretty images” won’t cut it and people will keep looking for photographs that tell a story and have higher ideas told through them.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers/journalists?
I think that the most important thing for anyone who wishes to connect with cultures around the world and to do meaningful work as a storyteller is to invest the time. It is a very rare thing that one can just pop into someone’s house for a few minutes, take images and leave with a good story. Sitting down and sharing who you are, what you do, and listening to the person you are photographing is a key feature in my work.
Other than spending time with people and not rushing everything, I think the best advice I can give is—shut up and listen! There is an amazing TED Talk done by Ernesto Sirolli where he talks about his approach to helping young entrepreneurs in remote countries as a foreigner—just stop what you are doing and watch it! It is a great talk and I truly believe it is relevant to anyone who wants to understand and connect with local communities—with or without a camera just listen, make a friend, get yourself into their world and don’t expect them to go into yours.
If you could hop on a free plane to anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
Would love to go and see Siberia, it is definitely a dream destination of mine.