Interview by U.Nurbolat at Montsame News Agency
The Kazakh people in Mongolia are one of very few nations left in the world who are still practicing the ancient art of hunting with eagles today. Mongolia’s eagle hunting and the Golden Eagle Festival have been a great attraction for the increasing number of foreign travelers to Mongolia. Photographer Batzaya Choijiljav, who has been promoting this unique traditions of the Kazakh people to Mongolian people and the world through his series of photographs, spoke about his own experience in the eagle hunting culture.
- Let’s start our talk with your story of how you became a photographer? When did you start your photography career?
- I am originally from Zavkhan province. I started working as a tour guide in 1998, setting my foot in the tourism industry, which requires photography interests and skills from all people working in this field. First of all, when I needed photographs about Mongolia for my company’s webpage and introduction, I had to ask from my friends or foreign tourists who travelled in Mongolia, which sometimes happened to not meet my expectations when it comes to their quality and contents. Secondly, I traveled across the Sahara Desert in Western Africa to return with many great photos taken using an advanced compact camera I took with me. The compliments given by my families and friends to those photos inspired me to take more photos. Not to mention that the widespread use of social media platforms in recent years is helping photographers to promote their works and grow. What I started doing for job has become my hobby now. I would describe myself a person who fell in love with photography.
- What kind of photos do you take mostly?
- I used to take nature and landscape photos at the outset, which helped me to learn the basics about photography. Then, I started doing themed-photographs, focusing on travelling and lifestyle photos, such as, a life in the Taiga. Over the past several years, I have been capturing wildlife, which is not an easy genre as it takes a lot of courage, determination, labor and costs expensive. For instance, I travelled to Bayan-Ulgii province in Western Mongolia for 6 times in total, tracing down the animals and studying their lives. Despite the fact that numerous of my travels turned to failed attempts, I also manage to document the whole natural landscape, local lives and surrounding areas, not only the animals. I am pretty happy that I did manage to capture very rare snow leopards in its wild habitat.
- I spotted a large number of photos of eagles, an idol for the Kazakh people among your photos posted on social media. Why did you choose this theme?
- World countries are taking advantage of their uniqueness and national identity to promote themselves and attract attention of others. Foreigners are hugely interested in the mysterious identities, wilderness livelihoods of the nomadic Mongolians, not only the beautiful nature of the country. Therefore, I have been taking photos for my photography series called “Eagle”, which is one of the national identities of our country. I have been taking snaps of golden eagle, eagle hunters and eagle festival over the past decade, witnessing the transformation of the lives of those people. How faces of them changed and their life story over the recent 10 years of photographs are preserved in my computer.
- A lot of people are currently engaged in eagle photography. What are the specific characters of your photos?
- As a person in tourism, I have many close Kazakh friends. A significant number of tourists travelling to Mongolia come to see the western Altai region of Mongolia and experience the lives, culture and tradition of the Kazakh people. I believe that the Kazakh people have well-preserved their wonderful tradition of falconry. A Kazakh man on horseback holding his eagle and towering mountains of Altai are perfect combination. The region the eagles and their hunters are living in favorable environmental conditions suited to them is another advantage. The magnificent mountains, eagles, horses and the fearless Kazakh men dressed in their traditional clothing are the essence of my photographs. I enjoy shooting high-speed photographs, capturing the best moment from various extremely short scenes that would otherwise be missed.
- What is your message you wish to convey through your photos?
- Mongolia, the country made of many ethnic groups and nationalities, has its own unique qualities and invaluable history and culture. The Kazakh people and their eagles are one of them. I aspire to do my own contribution to promote and preserve this wonderful culture as a person working for the tourism industry and a photographer. I would like to take this moment and applaud the eagle hunter Aisholpan, who played an important role in bringing the eagle festival and the eagle hunting culture under the global spotlight. It is certain that most of the tourists in Bayan-Ulgii aimag are those who are coming to see the home of the Aisholpan girl and her eagle hunting culture. If we can succeed promote this culture and tradition, a lot of people will be attracted to our country.
- Have your photos about eagle about been published on foreign media outlets?
- Dozens of eagle photographs I took have been published by foreign media. Some of the first eagle photos captured in 2015 were published in many foreign newspapers and webpages, such as Daily News, Telegraph and Yahoo News, etc. Most recently, my photo of an eagle hunter Asilbek was featured on the cover of an in-flight magazine of Lufthansa, one of the world’s largest airlines, in December 2019 along with more than ten other photos about eagles and an article. Another photo “Eagle Hunter” appeared on the November 2018 edition of Telegraph newspaper.
- I heard that you are working to release your independent works under the theme of eagle. Can you please give us more information?
- In the past several months, I have been working to publish my own photography book about the eagle and the culture of hunting with eagles. I have collected a large amount of information and photos over the past decade. Around 200-page photography book will be published in English language, containing photos of courageous eagle hunters Zhenisbek from Sagsai village; already-famous Aisholpan girl, eagle hunter Shaimurat from Altantsogts village and other eagle hunters as well as their life stories and efforts to carry on with and pass onto this traditional culture to their next generations. We are also looking for a partner to work together on my book’s Kazakh version as I wish to demonstrate how this tradition of eagle hunting is preserved by the Kazakh people in Mongolia to all Kazakhs around the world.
- As a person who work closely with locals in Bayan-Ulgii aimag, what kind of opportunities do you see to develop tourism industry there?
- Bayan-Ulgii aimag, with the Altai Mountains and the unique culture of the Kazakh people, is a must-see on any Mongolian itinerary. There are some problems concerning its infrastructure due to its remote location. The growing number of tourists heading to Bayan-Ulgii aimag is followed by the expansion of hospitality industry in the area. In addition, the Eagle Festival has already grown to become a great attraction of foreign tourists to the area. However, there is an indispensable need to improve service quality and management and introduce much-needed standards in the tourist industry to accommodate domestic and foreign tourists.
- Thank you for taking the time to give us an interview.
Interview by U.Nurbolat