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Work / Photography

John Feely on capturing life in “remote” Mongolia and learning a new way of living

In the past year, photographer John Feely has won a long list of awards from the likes of LensCulture and Capture magazine, many of them for his series The Outsider. Based on his experiences in Mongolia, where the Australian photographer now partly lives, the series is a lingering look at life in the vast, sparsely-populated nation.

The Outsider is set in Mongolia, where you are now based. What drew you to the country?

I went to Mongolia because I wanted to experience what was beyond my own plans, with the belief that perhaps there was a wisdom out there beyond my own need to control, expect and need certain things and outcomes. I chose Mongolia because I knew it was spacious and had traditional values. I literally chose a spot off a map because it looked the most remote and flew there. I did this because living in this way in Australia was not working out for me. It was my way of dealing with something more than a planned trip.

The point of the trip was to put myself in a location so far from my realm of experience with no plan or expectation, so in a way everything that could happen was unexpected and beyond my own control. 

Who is The Outsider?

The title The Outsider refers to the people I stayed with, myself and my reasons for going to Mongolia. I try to document my own internal and external experience, my own journey and what draws me to a place as well.

Internally I guess I discovered how transformative it is to not fill up the space with what we know and want, and instead embrace what is actually around us. Specifically how this opens up the world around us, gives us a new way to see. In some ways I learned a whole new way of living. I tried to express experiences and relationships rather than documenting the literal exclusively.

How did you find your way around the notoriously under-populated country?

Initially, I flew into a town in Western Mongolia with no plan thereafter. After a few days I met someone who spoke English and they organised for me to go 200km out of town and stay with a family. I had plans of travelling on horseback from there down the valley but after three days my horse got injured so I returned back to the family I was staying with. As was often the case, what seemed like a setback became something beyond what I had planned. The next day I ended up migrating across the country with the family’s grandfather, his grandson and all of their animals, while the rest of the family moved their possessions. We ended up in their summer resting place and set up there for the summer. With this as a base I would sometimes travel around the region, often with Agali, the father of the family and now a very dear friend.

Tell us about daily life in Mongolia.

In 2014 and 2015, I was living with a family in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia so I spent my time partaking in daily life there. This involved everything from sharing meals to rounding up wild horses in the mountains, migrating from place to place and climbing into eagles nests halfway down cliff faces.

The people I stayed with did not speak the same language as me, so our communication was non-verbal. This has a notable effect on how I communicate with people and spend my time. Very strong relationships can be formed from this approach: it requires a lot of trust and can also lead to a lot of laughter. In some ways I guess the details disappear and you are left with a very pure form of experience.

Last year, I spent six months working on a personal project in Mongolia. Since The Outsider I have become interested in what Mongolia is beyond my own notions of traditional living. Finding the physical spaces where the world I live in at home in Australia and my experiences from The Outsider intersect. I guess I am interested in how the ideas and practices from traditions can contribute to a new way of living in the future. I think sometimes we forget that tradition can also be part of progress.

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John Feely: The Outsider

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John Feely: The Outsider