Mongolian portraits feel like 'time travel'

Updated 17th September 2015
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Mongolian portraits feel like 'time travel'
Written by Allison Love, CNN
Stanislas Guigui only has a few minutes of the wrestler's time. The man, dressed as a traditional Mongol warrior, poses against a bare sliver of wall outside a stadium where he participating in a wrestling contest. Guigui takes his photograph, and the wrestler is gone.
"It has to be fast," Guigui said. "It's in the middle of the competition."
The wrestling competition is part of the Naadam festival held in Mongolia every summer. The festival, a celebration of traditional Mongolian culture, once served as a training ground for soldiers. It now commemorates the country's independence from China. Along with the wrestling competition, the weeklong festival includes tournaments in archery and horse racing.
Guigui, who is from France, typically works in more urban environments photographing people like drug addicts, thieves and gang members. He wanted to experience something different.
Photographer Stanislas Guigui
Photographer Stanislas Guigui Credit: Stanislas Guigui
"I normally work with strange people," he said. "I needed something nice."
In Mongolia, he encountered a people very much in tune with the nature around them. He was invited to ride horses with them, and he found that competition is normal.
"They have a really strong culture and history," Guigui said.
Yet even a place where centuries-old traditions are kept alive is not immune from the effects of modernization, and for Guigui, this culture became sacred.
"You go to a land where there is nothing, and you see people living like they would 100 years ago. But they all have cell phones, they know how to use Skype and Facebook," he said. "I think that culture will die with technology. It's globalization."
You go to a land where there is nothing, and you see people living like they would 100 years ago. But they all have cell phones, they know how to use Skype and Facebook.
Photographer Stanislas Guigui
Guigui's portraits pay homage to this threatened way of life. He didn't want to make a reportage, but rather something he could control that felt "out of time and out of space." His images of these people in their traditional dress look painterly and invoke a sense of timelessness.
"I wanted to be a painter," he said. "I don't really like photography as photography. I like texture, and I don't find it in photography."
Finding people to photograph wasn't easy.
"They're afraid of everything," Guigui said. "It's a shamanist culture. They believe in bad spells, superstitions. They don't like to be photographed."
Guigui had to ask people one by one if he could take their portrait. Because he was shooting during the middle of competition, he only had a few minutes with each.
"I was shooting really fast," he said. "I talked to them for maybe two minutes explaining what I'm doing, and we did the shoot in one minute. For them, one picture is one picture."
Guigui did not have to give direction to his subjects; they made a pose that felt most natural to them.
"They are not aggressive, but they're warriors," he said. "They act like warriors when you shoot them. (The warrior) has to be him. If you direct too much, you lose authenticity."
Another challenge Guigui faced was finding a clean background for his photographs.
"They put advertising everywhere," he said. "In the arena where they fight, you see Coca-Cola (ads) everywhere. I had to take (the subjects) out of the arena."
Guigui said his experience in Mongolia and working with the people at the festival was like "time travel." The purpose of his photographs is to make the viewer question when they were taken.
Yet witnessing the effects of modernization saddened him. He likened it to photographing an endangered species in Africa. "This culture will disappear," he said.
Despite the juxtaposition between old and new in Mongolia, Guigui was struck by sense of nobility.
"For me, there's a lot of beauty in these people," he said. "To shoot the beauty of eagles, horses, people -- I don't know how to explain that feeling. It's noble to me. It still exists."
Stanislas Guigui is a French photographer represented by Agence VU. You can follow him on Facebook.