Inner Mongolian Diptychs Tell of Profound Change

A Yin is documenting his home province of Inner Mongolia. He is a self-taught anthropologist-photographer who has made it his mission to record the last of the nomads there. The phenomenal changes he captures tell the broader story of China’s transformation. Mr. Yin was cited by the National Geographic All Roads Film Project in 2007. Sim Chi Yin, a photographer and writer based in Beijing, interviewed Mr. Yin for Lens. Their conversation has been translated from Mandarin.

Saihandeliger in February 2008 and June 2010
Wendusubatu in May 2005 and July 2010
Chaokevadalafu (father), Wujimo (mother) and Sulide in December 2005 and June 2010
Bayasigulang in February 2006 and June 2010
Husile' erhumu in December 2006 and June 2010
Magesurizabu (left in color photo) and Wuhanna in December 2008 and July 2010

Q. Why have you persisted in shooting Inner Mongolia’s nomads?
A. Because their way of life is disappearing. Chinese society is developing very quickly and traditions are changing, diminishing, disappearing. I just want to document, help preserve and propagate the great traditions of my ancestors. I feel a pain in my heart as I see it all change. These traditions belong to an old world. I am documenting the way of life of the descendants of Genghis Khan.

I come from a family of farmers. We are Mongolian but have became very Han Chinese over time and through interaction with them. My own family had given up on the nomadic life for over 200 years now. We had lost our traditions.
Q. How did you find your path as a documentary photographer?
A. When I was 14, I dropped out of school because my family had no money. I farmed for about two years and did all sorts of things — like going around to steal chickens with the village thief — just to survive. But I knew I had to leave.

I started to write for the local newspaper, to be independent and earn my own money.
Since I was young, I liked art, writing, calligraphy. I always wanted to go back to school but I never fulfilled that dream. I also started a small business, going from village to village with a backpack, selling clothes, jeans.

At the time, color photographs had only just reached our villages. I thought if I bought a camera, I could take pictures for ordinary people and make some money, and also take some news pictures for the newspaper I was writing for. I saw it as an opportunity to earn cash. My main aim at the time was to feed myself.

At the end of 1989, I bought a Great Wall-brand 35-millimeter camera with a 38-millimeter lens for 98 yuan. I sold clothes for 10 days to save that sum.

I started to learn photography on my own. The only pictures I had ever seen then were those in the local newspaper. To get the film processed, once a month, I would take a train ride lasting half a day to a town 500 kilometers [310 miles] away. That was too slow for the newspaper.

So I bought a Seagull 120 camera and a simple enlarger. I started to develop film at home, using the bowls we used for eating. When everyone was asleep, I would put blankets over the windows. My father would help by looking at his watch and calling out the time, so that I knew how long my film had been in the chemicals.

I then started to take graduation pictures for schools in the villages, to earn money. Whenever I went to the villages, they’d announce to everyone that there was a photographer around. I met many other young people who had dropped out of school. I could relate to them. I felt sorry for them and started to photograph them. And I started to photograph some of the lowly-paid local teachers, too. Between 1990 and 1996, I went to some 200 villages and photographed the tough lives in the villages and in the schools.

From 1998, I started to photograph the last Mongolian nomads. I could tell that the culture was fast disappearing. I chose a place — the Uzhumuchin grassland — where there were glimpses of that culture and moved there. I lived in a town where there were just gers [tents, also known as yurts]. There were no paved roads. The climate was harsh. I’ve been living there for the past 12 years. I opened a small photo studio. I’m in that town half of the year; the other half, I live with nomads. I’ve become friends and become so close to them. That’s how I get such intimate pictures.

I have some 200,000 rolls of film of their lives now. I have to keep on documenting.
Q.What changes have you witnessed?
A.When I went there, the traditional way of life was still visible. They’d still use a cow-driven cart to transport all their belongings as they moved around to places where the grass and water is good, chaining up seven to eight carts. By the year 2000, all that had been lost. Many of them settled down, lived in houses built on their patch of the grassland. Now there are hundreds of kilometers of road. And three railroads are being built. How scary is that?

I will continue to document the changes: How will these once-nomadic people support themselves when they go to the cities?
Q.How did you get so deep into their lives, given that your family had left traditional ways of life behind for generations?
A.To document a place, you can’t not understand it. After photographing there for a while, I spent five years researching and writing a 26-volume collection of books, in Mongolian, on the history of the place, their customs and practices. And I started a magazine on their customs and cultures, with my text and pictures, and those of local authors. It was my way of understanding the culture deeply; to record it, protect it.
Q.Have you ever thought of photographing elsewhere, on other issues?
A.I will never leave. I have been offered money to go other places to shoot. I will not go. I don’t want to mess up my mind, my vision. I can go anywhere to shoot, but I wouldn’t feel for it.
Q.Many documentary photographers around the world are finding it harder to make ends meet these days. What do you think of this?

A.I think photography these days is getting more conceptual; that is, fashionable. The path of straight documentary photography seems to be getting narrower. But I think documentary photography will always exist. It is closer to reality. It can’t be so conceptual or artistic; that would be destroying reality.

My thinking is simple. I just want to record my ancestors’ culture. That is my mission, my vocation. I’m not rich, but I’m very fulfilled. I don’t intend to become rich. I think as long as I work hard, I will be all right. For many Chinese people now, it’s all about making money. I’ve gone further and further away from that. I don’t really care for that. When people ask me, “A Yin, have you made lots of money taking pictures?” I feel so repulsed. I think they are culturally illiterate.




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