(EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DONNA TODD – CONTINUED)
WONDERLANCER: What about your experience with the Tsaatan of northern Mongolia? How did that project start?
DONNA TODD: I had an exhibition at the ‘Mongolian National Museum of Fine Art’, with the pictures that I took of shamans, on a previous trip. The exhibition was in order to raise awareness about my ongoing quest to photograph shaman’s and in order to get help to find more of them. The exhibition received major press coverage.
The exhibition and the publicity from it, worked well in getting me help to further the project, that’s how I met the Professor Sükhbaatar, who told me of a 100 year old shaman who lived high in the mountains on the border of Siberia, in Northern Mongolia and that she and her tribe lived with a herd of reindeers.
He offered to take me to visit them; I obviously jumped at the opportunity and got very excited about going there. Prof. Sukhbaatar is one of Mongolia’s most famous historians and he also started a The Reindeer Support Fund a NGO to support the reindeer people who are known also as the Tsaatan tribe. The Tsaatan face problems with the dwindling herd numbers and veterinary problems caused by the necessary inbreeding of them.
They also lose a lot of their young people, who think they would rather live in the big cities, but who face severe poverty when they get there. These Tsaatan or Reindeer People’s lives actually revolve around the reindeer. They have lived in the area for 4,000 years. Professor Sukhbaatar showed me glyphs on gigantic rocks with pictures of people riding reindeers, which have been confirmed as that old by geologists.
To get to the reindeer people it took four days of quite exhausting travel: two hours on a plane, an overnight stop in a town whose only hotel had a hot water system that got turned on at 8pm and promptly kept heating until it boiled…with no cold water to cool it down, so if you were not out by 8.15 you got boiled to death!
Next day we took off in a jeep for seven hours and stayed at my friend’s ger (traditional Mongolian tent), who was a Shaman called Ura and who I had met in a the previous trip. She made us so very welcome. Then, the next night we stayed the night at another ger, where the professor new some herders who would rent us twelve horses, some as pack horses, a couple for the guides, my translator, the professor and me. We were to ride the next day up the treacherous mountain full of slippery mud and big boulders, with the threat of bear and wolf.
I had no idea that horses could perform as mountain goats until then. The ride up took 10 hours, but it was a lot of fun. We arrived at the top of the mountain to the sight of tee pees with smoke gently billowing out the pipe chimneys, which are attached on the inside of the tepee to stoves that look a bit like pot belly stoves. The sight was magical and looked exactly like the red Indians in America would have. Such a vast expanse of wilderness in the valley they had chosen as their summer home. They say summer…but the temperature stayed at about 5 degrees Celsius during the day and at night below 0.
There are only sixty of these reindeer families left in Mongolia and they only have about 800 reindeers.
We were warmly greeted by the reindeer people thanks to the professor and were promptly taken into their tepees and given hot reindeer milk to drink. A little while later the reindeers came home from a day of being herded around the mountains, to eat the rare moss found there. I was hypnotized by these creatures. They are just gorgeous, so peaceful, full of personality and seemingly wise and they are so tame… They come straight up to you to lick your hands as they love their salty taste. Obviously I had a field day taking photos. I stayed with them for over a month and went out herding the reindeers with the herders during the days. The whole experience of meeting these reindeer people was awesome and mind-blowing. They have great sense of humour and are so warm and welcoming that they make you feel part of their tribe family.
I spent my birthday up there and the highlight of the day was meeting with one of their Shamans, who did a ceremony at midnight for my birthday, after which we rode back to our camp under a full moon sky for 2 hours, me on horseback… the professor was on a reindeer, singing a love song to it the whole way back. Very surreal… as apparently they like the soothing sound, it relaxes them.
I also had a little ride on reindeer the next day, but it felt too small for me to grip, and my feet dangled close to the ground so I felt sorry for the poor thing, so didn’t stay on long.
WONDERLANCER: Absolutely fascinating… Many of your scenic shots look so magical, too, that can almost be perceived as out of another time or from another world entirely. What measure, in metaphorical percentages, would you say that a good photographer needs of with regards to eye for detail, technique and sensitivity?
DONNA TODD: To me technique has to be well and truly established to a point where you can take it for granted, as you know how to technically take exactly the photo you intend. Painting is something you do. You make a painting. You don’t make a photograph. You see a photograph. Photography is seeing only, you see it, you release the shutter, you use your aperture, and your camera and once you’ve seen it, that’s it. The post-production part is also very important to me, I use Photoshop much the same as I used to use the darkroom for: to create a mood.
WONDERLANCER: What can we learn, and must learn, from the people that live isolated from our industrial civilization?
DONNA TODD: I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a lot to be learned from these people. Without exception they know how to live in harmony with their environment, not destroying it, whereas we, in the West, simply cannot figure out a way to do this. Perhaps, if properly analysed, there could be found in their societies some element that could be transferred to ours, that could improve it in this way. Their legal and education systems often function near perfectly within their own societies too. Obviously they could not be transferred to the West, but perhaps elements of the thinking behind them could.
Everyone in their society is equal and there is no crime or even serious arguments. Their expectations of what they need are so low that they are never disappointed. They have so much free time to spend with their extended families that there is much more of a sense of social support than anywhere else I have been.
Compared to people in the West, where we are constantly being told we need to work more and more, have less and less free time, buy more and more unnecessary luxuries, these people were extraordinarily happy, welcoming and generous. The higher people’s expectations, the more likely they will be disappointed, and the more stressful their lives will be in trying to attain them.
WONDERLANCER: The more unnecessary stuff you buy, the more enslaved you are, indeed. Could you choose one shot, one moment, from the many you’ve taken and lived through, in which you felt one with your surroundings? Which picture would that be?
DONNA TODD: Probably the picture from my reindeer people collection of the tepees on the horizon and the vast wilderness surrounding them…
I took it when I arrived on top of the mountain, it was the first glimpse I got of the reindeer people and, when I look at it, it always takes me back to the utter awe I felt, like I had arrived in another very beautiful but stark new world.
WONDERLANCER: What project/s are you currently working on and what plans and dreams would you love to see fulfilled in the future?
DONNA TODD: I am planning on spending the next few years working with NGO’s that specialize in health care. I want to take pictures that communicate the problems that people around the world face. As I believe that humanitarian photography is like economics. Economy is a kind of sociology as is documentary photography. What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures; nothing more than this. I want people to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph. I want my pictures to inform, to provoke discussion – and to raise money for the NGOs that I take the photos for, so that they can, in turn, better help those they support.
WONDERLANCER: Donna, professionally and personally, again, you are an INSPIRATION. Thank you so much for sharing the truth of our world and our human essence through your lens. We have featured some of your amazing shots within this interview but, of course, we are also offering our readers the link to your website,
below, where they’ll be able to see and read more on your fantastic work.