The first time I heard about Mongolia was when my grandfather used to tell me stories about him being a prisoner of war during World War II. I must have been seven or eight years old at the time. Both of my grandfathers had been war prisoners in Germany and one of them, Louis, had been rescued in late 1944 by a detachment of Mongol soldiers who had joined the war under Soviet commandment when Mongolia was part of the Soviet bloc.
As a child, I remember my grandfather’s eyes lighting up when he described how the Germans ran away at first sight of these enormous, strong Asian men from a remote country he had barely heard of, running towards them, attacking the camp and liberating all of the prisoners. He used to describe how all of the prisoners – American, British, French, along with the Mongol soldiers – jumped into each others’ arms euphorically upon being rescued. This vivid image lingered in my mind and awoke in me a long-term fascination with Mongolia and the Mongols; a fascinating country which belonged to the people whom I was forever indebted to for saving my grandfather’s life.
When I became older, I decided to explore the country I had romanticized over for so long, and traveled to Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. When I arrived, it was exactly how I had imagined it to be: a pristine, natural preserved environment with wide landscapes, desert, mountain ranges, taiga and vast green plains. In every direction, it felt as if I were looking far out into the horizon towards the edges of the never-ending extent of the land. As well as the enigmatic Mongols, descendants of Genghis Khan also live in this harsh environment.
I took my first pictures in Mongolia on that trip in the late summer of 2001. A few months later when I was back in New York City, I looked at a map and realized that I had only covered a very small part of the country while I was there. I wanted to go back and work on a long-term photographic project there. I left for Mongolia on my second trip in winter 2002 and returned many times over seven years, totaling 10 trips, traveling and covering as much as I could of the country during the different seasons.
Despite traveling to Mongolia on numerous occasions, I still feel the same sense of excitement every time I visit. The unexpected always prevails, even when a trip through the country is planned to the smallest detail. Things never turn out the way they are planned. There were blizzards, cracking ice on frozen lakes, sandstorms, freezing temperatures forcing us to alter our route and expectations; sometimes with the sole objective of staying alive under very harsh environment.
Those extreme conditions make Mongolia an incredible place to shoot with endless opportunities. When the trip ends, I am often exhausted, and it is always a relief to leave. But then, quickly, the relief transforms into a longing to go back, to see and explore more of this vast and enigmatic country.