Cultures in Transition
No matter where you travel in the world, there will always be a tourist attraction. It’s often bright, beautiful and conveniently located. Spending little time you get a glimpse of the place and an illusion of “knowing them”.
Traveling to the “last mile” is seldom as described, often restricted, but rewarding when you reach the Cultures in Transition. The influx of commercialism has altered their old-world rituals and social relationships. Their customs might be antiquated, but their instinct of survival and resistance to change is commanding and full of hope.
The heart of “Cultures in Transition” comes from showcasing this fragility of life and heritage. The singular moment is “over rated” compared to the whole story. The images are a slice of time to tell the fuller richer story of the mind of their culture. Staged, composited or straight out of the camera, they morph traditional photography with the visual allure of light and artistic representation of their world.
When you venture all the way down the road — not just halfway — you witness the histories and traditions that are quickly fading away, just out of sight.
In 2001, I made my first trip to Asia with my wife, who is a first-generation American-Chinese woman. To make the journey even more special, we invited her parents, who hadn’t been back to China since they left in the mid-1960s. Even though I had known them for close to 10 years by that point, the five-week journey turned in a discovery of who they really were. They shared countless personal stories of growing up and living in China during the cultural revolution, of collecting enough food coupons to give each guest a piece of candy at their wedding reception, and of the ups and downs of working for the government. We visited the main cities — Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Xian — as well as natural, historical, and man-made wonders — Yellow Mountains, Guilin, West Lake, Three Gorges Dam.
Being raised in Switzerland in a small farming community, I was completely in awe of the incredible diversity, both in the environment and the culture. China seemed to be a country in rapid transition, from agrarian to urban, from antiquated to modern, from a historical relic to a future superpower. The images I took on that trip were less than stellar, but I felt a spark within me to further explore China and other Asian cultures. Over 20 trips later, Cultures in Transition was born.
With each subsequent trip to Asia, my explorations became more rustic and further away from mainstream tourist locations. Whenever you’re beginning a new project, it’s difficult to tell if you’re on the right track. But I knew I was on to something special when I would share my images with colleagues and one of my mentors – Geir Jordahl. Over time, they witness a shift in my images from mere documentary to story telling. My photography had evolved from a process to artistry, or as Jordahl calls it authenticity.
When you’re entering the world of the unknown, you’re completely inundated with visual stimulation. Like an explorer, excitement hangs around every corner. For me, the key to capturing powerful images while traveling is the balance between the virtual representation of a place versus the reality. You must learn to shed any preconceived notions and leave visual clichés behind. Instead, point your lens into more unexpected, authentic corners.
It’s only after you visit the same place over and over that you can see it for what it really is. You loose your tourist googles. You establish trust. You begin to focus on the true essence of the people, their daily joys and struggles, their fears and hopes for an uncertain future. As opposed to a voyeuristic glimpse at another person’s life, the images articulate the subject’s true desire. They are looking at us just as much as we are looking at them.
And before you know it, you’re on your last trip to a particular region. It’s always emotional to leave after forming such a deep emotional connection. After all, beyond getting to know these people in an intimate way, you might be the person that holds the last known image of a deceased relative or loved one. The gift of being a photographer is that you have the privilege of keeping their memory alive by telling their stories through images. Often, my subjects and I are separated by a language barrier, but when I leave behind photographs of their community, it’s a gift that transcends language.
“Spirit of the Village” took place over the course of eight years. This was a project built on connections, relentless guides, and smoking countless packs of unfiltered cigarettes with the locals. We were invited to their homes, festivals, birthdays, weddings, and even funerals. Over hot meals and strong drinks, the air was full of laughter and genuine emotion. Their spirits truly came out and enabled me to capture something pure, tender, and vulnerable. For that, I am incredibly thankful.
In one of the remote villages of the Hunan province, a wise man told me a story about his journey West. His eyes light and the sound of his voice was mesmerizing. He had travelled countless miles, which you would assume was for a spiritual connection. Along the way he found, people that he describes as different, as authentic as you can imagine. It wasn’t long before I was on that journey.
“Heart of the Yi” was a journey of persistence. The regions I visited in the Sichuan mountains were very remote and unfriendly to foreign visitors — especially photographers. After three failed attempts, one of which included being kicked out of our accommodation to make room for government officials, I got connected to a local farmer who spoke the Yi dialect. He enabled me to make impromptu stops, take side roads, visit his village, and gain unique insights into the Yi culture. I kept thinking about the wise man’s story and it was long after I had photographed the heart of the Yi that I understood what he had told me. The Yi were a flash back to my youth traveling into the remote valleys of Switzerland, feeling the isolation of nature and humans, what I had left behind, but what I should never forget.
Animals have always held a special place in my heart. I saw calves being born, flock of chicks following the hen, ducks taking their first plunge in the river at my grand parents’ farm. The communality was a reliance on the parents to survive, to grow. I could not imagine any other ways for these animals to grow up, until I heard about the eagles of the Altai mountains in Mongolia. The Burkitshi (eagle hunter’s name in Kazakh) capture young eagles and train them to hunt and be dependent on the owner for survival. The popularity of The Eagle Huntress documentary (2016) made them a tourist destination. Relying on my experience to connect with the Village, I had to dig deep to earn their trust and capture their soul: go hunting in arctic temperatures, share daily meals with the families, and sleep in tight quarters. At one point, I got stranded in their winter camp for a few days, and suddenly I felt like I was back with my in-laws, listening to unique oral histories passed down from generations - A full circle, appropriate to complete the Cultures in Transition project.
While I was primarily focused on the communities, they were not the only thing in-flux. Throughout the project, I couldn’t help but notice a change in myself. Each time I revisited a community, I re-discovered who I was and how my life had changed since the last trip. While I am in no way the focal point, the images I took are a way of contemplating a piece of my past through a new present.
As a young boy in Switzerland, I had dreams of becoming an explorer, of planting my own flag on the moon, of climbing every mountain, of digging a tunnel to see how the people lived on the other side of the world. I wanted my life to be special, to be an adventure. And while I never quite became an astronaut, I did learn to venture into the world with a deep curiosity and hunger to understand what makes people who they are. I still have fond memories of when my dad bought me my first camera, sitting at his side while he printed books on an old Heidelberg press. I fell in love with the smell and messiness of the inks, the feel of the prints, and the stories buried within. I caught a glimpse of how a photograph can move from the purely visual to something more meaningful.
In a way, a photograph is a kind of time travel: it transcends geography and culture to share a moment, however brief, of true connection. I hope this collection can transport you as well. While the lives I captured are diverse, each brimming with their own unique vibrancy, I believe they are all attempting to tell the same story: the Spirit, Heart, and Soul of Cultures in Transition.
Click to visit the Cultures in Transition website
What do you do when the modern world leaves you behind? In Asia, villages are populated by those on opposite ends of the generational divide — grandparents and children.
Meaning, those desperately looking to preserve tradition are caring for those most-willing to embrace change. Now, those left behind must balance the tension between past and present, tradition and tourism, industry and the environment.
Tucked away in the remote mountains of China, the Yi are fighting to preserve their culture in the midst of a fragile landscape.
To travel through the Sichuan province is to experience an emotional roller coaster, ranging from wonder to rejection, from resentment to intrusion, sometimes all at once.
The Yi remind us that our own struggles are but a heartbeat away. If we’re not aware it won’t be long until we ask, “Are we Yi in our own world?”
In Mongolia, young women are overcoming centuries of male-dominated tradition to master the ancient and noble art of hunting with eagles.
While cultural and environmental factors threaten the livelihood of the sport, the Kazakhs are fighting to keep their culture alive.
Riding horseback through the frigid terrain, these brave huntresses are out to prove they’re just as capable as the hunters that preceded them.