Part ethnographic study, part fairy tale, Hamid Sardar’s Dark Heavens – Shamans & Hunters of Mongolia, published this month by teNeues, is an extensive study of ways of life practiced by nomads in the country’s mountainous northern and western provinces. Sardar photographed there from 2000 to 2008, making images that record daily life for people including the Buryat, Dürbet and the Duhalar reindeer nomads, who have returned to nomadic life after escaping Soviet rule and being resettled by the Mongolian government.
In his images, animals are deeply incorporated in the lives of his subjects, from the horses, sheep, yak and camels they herd, to rarer creatures with whom they have more complex relationships, such as the wolves, bears, deer and golden eagles who play ceremonial or symbolic roles, often governed by shamans. That intimacy with animals, especially the latter kind, was part of Sardar’s motivation for working in Mongolia. While in earlier photographs Sardar says he attempted to create a typology of Mongolian nomads, photographing “the shaman, the antler collector, the ice fisherman…aiming to create a catalog,” over time, “the spiritual connection between man and animal became the guiding them of my work,” he writes in the book’s foreword. “I went there looking for an art of living close to nature and wild animals that I felt I had lost as a human being.”
Aware of the pitfalls that can beset an outsider recording an indigenous way of life, Sardar is careful to frame his images as collaboration with his subjects. Staged with the guidance of the groups he records, the images are “an attempt to preserve and recreate…a certain vision of time and place that they value as their cultural heritage,” he writes, a heritage that Sardar finds useful as well.