I was asked by VSCO’s editor Christina Rouse to share my trip to Mongolia, and how the experience changed the way I see the world. Below is an excerpt from the journal on VSCO website, which you can view in full here.
Ölgii is a city located in the extreme west of Mongolia. A predominantly Kazakh region, it is famous for nomadic eagle hunters who still maintain their old tradition of hunting with Golden Eagles trained from a young age. The chance to meet and spend time with them was definitely worth it despite the harsh winter climate.
What stood out to you while taking photos?
Our local fixer introduced us to the family of an eagle hunter, and there we met a young girl named Zamanbol who aspires to be the next eagle huntress. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of the famous Aisholpan, the first female hunter to compete in a male-dominated eagle festival in Ölgii. Maybe she was just shy in the presence of strangers, but she had a quiet demeanor. I could see a hint of sadness in her eyes. It made me wonder whether this was where she really wanted to be. On our last day with the eagle hunters, we had a chance to observe how a golden eagle was trained. That was the first time I saw Zamanbol’s genuine smile. I could finally see that she loved to be out there with her golden eagle.
How did this trip open your eyes to see the world differently?
It took me a while after the trip to change the way I see my images. But if there is one thing that affected my photography, it would be to capture images that show empathy towards the subjects, images that I can connect with on a personal level rather than something that just looks different.
In regards to challenging your creativity, what advice you would give to someone about to travel?
Lose your expectations. While doing research prior to a trip certainly helps, it may create unnecessary expectations and limit your creativity. This is because you might unknowingly try to copy similar images made by somebody else. Instead of going to the location with a big expectation that “I must get this shot,” just take it easy. Don’t rush to find the scene. Rather, enjoy the beautiful landscape, the people, the sight, and the sound. Observe your surroundings, and let the creativity slowly flow through you. You’re most creative when you are relaxed.
It was my second shift in Basra, right in the middle of a sweltering summer.
I used to live in Dubai, therefore I have quite a good idea of what the heat is like in this part of the world. But, oh boy, the summer here is on another level. Imagine walking through hundreds of hairdryers blowing hot air from all directions. Imagine taking a shower late in the night but the water is still pouring hot. You get the idea.
For me who spent most of the time in the air-conditioned office, it wasn’t too bad. For the construction workers at the site, though, the environment is harsh. The same is very true for the residents of Basra, a city of over 2 million people. The situation is especially bad this year. Due to chronic lack of funding and corruptions, the infrastructure in the city is in dire straits. The residents have to endure power shortage, as well as salty, unusable water. This culminates in wide-spread protests from July to September. Basra is the oil-rich economic center of Iraq. Around 80% of the country’s revenue comes from here. Yet, the region is plagued by broken infrastructure and poverty. It is understandable why people are fed up with the government and are on the streets demanding for better basic services and job prospects (see Al-Jazeera’s article).
Detached from the outside world
Living in a confined space like the camp - in the middle of an oil field, and far away from all the protests - I am somewhat disconnected from the realities. We have everything to live comfortably. Reliable electricity, air-conditioned bedrooms, clean water, food. Local people don’t have much of these things. It is almost two parallel worlds, divided by T-walls and barbed wire. No wonder the foreign oil workers like us are always a target of some angry protestors. It’s not that we are oblivious to the situation. We discussed about it all the time in the office, but we were more concerned about our own safety. Would we be able to get out in time?
In early July, the protestors started gathering around the oil fields, blocking access in and out of the area. The security was heightened. The protestors surrounded one of the facilities outside the secured perimeter, threatening to disrupt the oil operation. It’s just a matter of time before they tried to break into the main area. Eventually, on one late morning, the protest erupted at one of the main checkpoints. The angry protestors tried to break through the barricade, and the security force (oil police) used live rounds, resulting in casualties.
During this time, several oil companies began to evacuate their foreign workers. My company eventually decided to evacuate its foreign staff. The notification was quietly sent to us the evening before. The convey left the camp early in the morning to avoid running into the protestors and roadblocks.
As we arrived safely to the airport, the mood lightened up. I was relieved to be out.
Working for an oil company in Iraq, to an extent, does pose a moral dilemma. The foreign workers come here to earn a good salary, twice or triple what we could get back home. We can leave the country any time there is an unrest or a threat of war. Sadly for local people in Basra, they are stuck with broken infrastructure, and a broken politics driven by oil money. Yet, their livelihood is so dependent on the oil industry that has enabled this endless cycle of unrest and political turmoil. By coming to work here, do I contribute anything good for the local people here, or rather, I am part of the exploitative oil industry?
New Adventure, or Just Detour from Figuring Out Life?
Last several months have been a tough time for me. I had been out of job for a while. The plan I had - or lack thereof - when I left Dubai in early 2016 did not go as I imagined. Photography was the one thing that carried me through these times. So when I received a phone call about a potential job to work in Iraq, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. Had it been a year earlier I would have said no for the obvious reason, i.e. the perceived danger of working in a place with recent history of war and violence. I was going to join an international oil company, and they assured me of all the safety measures they had in place. Besides, the prospect of seeing a new place, going where not many people would go is exciting. It would also be a chapter of my life to document through the camera.
My first shift went pretty fast. I guess it was adjusting to a new routine, to working life again after a long time, and getting to know new people. The work hours were long. As it’s a site job and shift-based, we have to work non-stop for 28 days straight. There is not much life after work, and we aren’t allowed to leave the camp due to safety concerns. Actually, 4-week shift is considered a gold standard for foreign workers here. Some have to stay a whole year in the camp.
Some nights I couldn’t sleep. Did I make a right decision? This seemed like a short-term solution, while avoiding the hard question about life’s purpose and finding your place in this world.