John Feely on Myths

1. I understand that you first went to Mongolia on a whim, what drew you there and what were you expecting?

I first went there because the way I was living in Australia wasn’t really working out for me. I wanted to learn things that I felt might be helpful. I was in search of spaciousness, tradition and providence.

2. How did you cope with the language barrier, and photographing a culture so foreign to yours?

I guess wanting to learn from other peoples ways means you get to honour the way they live, this opens the door to a different way of interacting with people. I was only able to live in Western Mongolia simply because people welcomed me into their homes. So maybe people were accepting of the reason I was there.

Also, Western Mongolia is the type of place where a mother will hand you her baby on plane while she gets her luggage, so generally it's a very trusting place.

Sharing no language meant that I couldn't direct anything that happened. When making work it was this silence and stillness that I connected with most and I think the people I photographed felt the same. It felt like a stripping away of something which was quite a powerful experience.

3. How did you go about making your work there? Was it done in short trips, or did you roam freely with an open itinerary?

The idea of the trip was not to have a plan, because planning and assurances were what was not working for me back home. Based on the belief that what was out there was actually more interesting than anything I could imagine I landed at the local airport and left the rest wide open. Moment to moment I just tried to focus on what was presenting itself. Something I did to greater or lesser degrees throughout the trip.

I made The Outsider over two trips to Western Mongolia. One for 3 months and the other for 2 weeks. I took a camera and 2 lenses and shot what felt right. I had never made a body of work before so there was no real overarching idea in a photographic sense, I realised what the project might be about by putting the photographs up on my wall after the first trip and of course reflecting upon why I went. It was a great way to work, uncovering instead of going into things with too much certainty. It means you consider everything that unfolds, not just what you think is important. It takes me a long time to finish projects and a long time afterwards to understand what they might mean.

4. Where was the most intriguing place you photographed in the country?

I pretty much stayed in the same 2 places - the families summer and winter resting places. I always think I will make projects by travelling vast distances, but realistically just staying in one place works best in my case. It’s the times when I feel like there is nothing left to shoot and I have to find new ways of doing things that are important.

I remember when I first arrived at the family home where I spent most of my time. Essentially a one room brick building with a few cows, surrounded by endless amounts of mountainous desert. Part of me was momentarily disappointed that I had travelled all that way to be there. But giving it time saw things happen beyond what I could imagine. People training eagles, local horse races, relocating with nomads, wild weather patterns, and of course more subtle things that ended up becoming the heart of the project.

5. How would you like to see your work in the country develop in the future?

I feel like what I made in 2014 and 2015 was one end of a spectrum. What is happening in this part of the world right now speaks to me of humanity in a broader context, in terms of progress and direction. I have been exploring other realities in Mongolia for about a year now.

6. Mongolia seems like a country that's changing a lot - moving from a nomadic place to one where there's an influx of mining and money - what do you think of these changes and what they might mean for the country?

I think these changes are happening everywhere, all across the globe, perhaps at different speeds in different places, but they are still everywhere. However there is definitely something to be said for being in Mongolia and seeing 'progress’ unfold in an accelerated way. What interests me is how the outcome effects us as humans - this idea that the reality we unconsciously design also designs us.

On a deeper level I’m interested in these upheavals that are associated with progress feel like and what motivates us to engage with them. Decisions around progress are often influenced by basic human or even mammalian instincts, the same ones we have acted upon for thousands of years, instincts that contribute to the direction we take collectively.

7. What other photographers and artists have made work in Mongolia, or are doing so in the present?

Tsatsralt Sereeter is considered the father of contemporary Mongolian photography. He was trained as a photographer during Mongolia’s Soviet era but has inspired the next generation to make work in a beautifully Mongolian way.

Injinaash Bor is a talented up and coming contemporary Mongolian photographer. He is considered part of the current ’Gap’ generation of young Mongolians out there making work.

Beyond photography Uisenma Borchu is a German-based Mongolian director whose work also touches on what it means to be Mongolian and in the world.

8. What are some Mongolian myths, and are these still contemporary?

I recently visited the mountain where Chiggis Khan knelt down and asked the gods for help when all else was lost. It was an incredibly powerful place and connects with the sky in an unexplainable way. Just to be there in that wide open space gave me a tremendous amount of energy. It is easy to see what he was kneeling before.

Mongolian mythology tells the story of their ancestors, often stretching back to the times of the Great Khans. There are many stories about the spirits of the land and water and how they have interacted with Mongolian ancestry. From my limited understanding this is how the land, lakes and forests communicated with people. You can be in favour with these forces or do something that will put you out of favour and bring you misfortune.

Mongolian Shamanism has a core belief about maintaining balance between opposites. For example striking a balance between killing animals for food and husbandry. This is different to our current way of thinking in the West. The Mongolian way is less anthropocentric and recognises that if we mistreat other entities in the world there are outcomes, and that we also harm ourselves.

Myths aren’t just considered stories in Mongolia, so they are definitely contemporary. The relationship is more literal than what we experience. They are a historical recount, a way of interacting with your ancestry and previous lives, your environment and who you are. A way of understanding that you are a part of everything and always have been. One of the things I love about Mongolia is how this way of approaching life exists even amongst people that lead a very urban and life.

9. Did you have any favourite myths as a child? What drew you to them?

I was brought up hearing stories from Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and Science Fiction from the 60’s and 70’s. I specifically remember stories of the Minotaur, Troy and Alexander the Great. The sense of adventure and freedom drew me to these stories as a child.

However the story that stuck with me the most was an Australian Indigenous Dreaming Story called the Quinkins. It had a lightness and a darkness about it, in some places it was calm like nature often is. Many of the details have escaped my memory but I still experience these feeling when I think about this book. I suppose it resonated deeply with me like much of the Australian outback does. It feels like such an ancient and wise place when you are out there.

10. What's an under-rated mythological story?

Maybe the story of Kali, or the Black Madonna, this type of mythology that breaks us down. There are different versions of this same myth throughout history. I don’t think we respect this as a process as much as we used to. This fear of missing out mentality that is around today is kind of the opposite to what these mythological characters bring. Most likely because our view of the world has become increasingly anthropocentric, encouraging us to believe that we are beyond such forces. A bushfire in one’s life occasionally is useful to let things grow back in a different way. Maybe handing control of things over to something greater than ourselves is becoming a bit of a lost art.