On the last evening trekking across the Mongolian steppes, I peek my head out of the ger, leaving its warmth to feel the arid winds of the steppes on my face. A light fleece bundles me up, breaking the piercing wind on an otherwise warm evening as summer winds down. Long shadows of children run across the dramatic swaths of darkened grassland. A man with a potbelly takes a drag off his cigarette, silhouetted by the dimming sun. I close the door, muffling the sound of the dozen or so nomads talking over the fire of a stove that’s planted in the middle of the ger. The sun drops towards the earth on the other end of the valley as I pause for a moment. I look around, searching my surroundings, until it catches my eye. I walk over and reach down, grabbing a child’s miniature stool, and then trudge towards the setting sun.
I walk for a minute and stop, I look back and pause; the lively sounds of the ger are silent, the sliver of firelight from the crack in the door is gone, the children’s shadows look like mirages in the dark, and the man with the potbelly is just a deep red speck in the dark steppen canvas. I turn back around and in front of me is an empty landscape, windswept and flat, with small hills slowly running up on each side of the horizon and anchored with a small outhouse in the middle ground. The air gets colder by the minute as the sky darkens, the sun highlighting the clouds in bright oranges and purples resting over darkened greens. I sit for a minute with no obligation and just stare. I pull out my sketchbook and prop it up on my knee. I pick up my camera and put the viewfinder to my eye. And then… nothing.
No familiar click of the shutter, no subsequent LED screen lighting up my face as I wait on it to show me what it captured, no poring over that image and thinking of a second exposure. I rest it in my lap, hand firmly gripped on it still, and just stare, back hunched over, balancing myself on the small stool. My eyes dart back and forth between the everything in my periphery – The wide panoramics, the shadows streaming along the smooth green hills, and boundless emptiness of the steppes. I lift the camera to my eye again and just stare through it. Silence. It drops once more. A pencil is pulled from my left pocket. it rests it on the sketchpad, the camera is pulled up to my eye once more, and I stare through the viewfinder for a long minute, framing my scene. Silence. My camera drops onto the grass beneath me and I begin to sketch.
Mongolia does not lend itself to the 4×6 frame. It does not fold itself down to fit in the constrained rectangle of the flat image. It’s stubborn in that way; But through my camera is largely how I’ve come to understand and engage with the world around me. With Mongolia, like with everywhere else, I used my lens to interrogate the landscape, figuring out Mongolia by finding a way to fit it into a 4×6.
Photography, as a practice, is one in empathy; And the camera, as Susan Sontag says, is the acquisitive arm of the consciousness. With both these ideas in motion, my camera slows me down and forces me to come to terms with every place in its uniqueness – It’s my practice of process. I try my best to find the identity of anywhere I go, as it truly is in character and form. Yet, Mongolia, with its unbounded formlessness, challenged me to find its visuality. With great difficulty and subsequent gratification, I found it. The following is Mongolia.
1. Entering the Brutalist City
2. The Steppen Family
3. The Ger
4. The Steppes
5. The Desert
6. Desert Town
7. Leaving the Brutalist City
All photos taken and copyrighted by Stephen Pearson.