Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1

 

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Among the Monchak
 

Kelly Richardson '88 helps capture a vanishing culture for posterity.

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by Sherrie Negrea

Arriving at a remote outpost in Mongolia, Kelly Richardson '88 at first felt as if he were back in the Rocky Mountain West, where he has spent summer vacations since childhood. The wide-open skies, cool climate, and rugged terrain reminded him of the Montana and Wyoming landscapes he had photographed for nearly three decades.

What was starkly different to Richardson was the people -- their openness with strangers and the simple lives they lead in the portable canvas huts they truck from pasture to pasture in the Mongolian countryside.

"It's so remote there, if you were to come across a couple of structures, the people would just invite you in and feed you without asking you any questions at all. That's so shocking," says Richardson, who majored in cinema production at Ithaca College and now owns a motion picture supply business and works as a freelance photographer.

In August 2004 Richardson accompanied his longtime friend K. David Harrison, a linguist from Swarthmore College, on a two-week trip to western Mongolia. The two, who had met through friends, went to document an endangered language called Monchak. A selection of Richardson's photographs of the dwindling number of the language's speakers will appear in Harrison's new book, When Languages Die, scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press next year.

The language, spoken by about 100 people also called Monchaks, is being lost as these nomads, who have for centuries migrated around the countryside with their animal herds, move to neighboring cities and switch to the Mongolian dialect. Not just their language, but their customs and knowledge about their world are vanishing.

"We tried to capture their way of life," says Harrison, who has also compiled a 5,000-word English-Tuvan (a language related to Monchak) dictionary . "This group of people is disappearing -- they're switching to the city and losing their way of life."

The Monchak people subsist on the food -- milk, cheese, and meat -- from the animals they herd, and the sale of marketable byproducts such as cashmere. One unique facet of their language is the complex classification system they have devised for their animals, specifically the various breeds of cattle, goats, and yaks that Richardson photographed.

The two Americans spent their time in Mongolia living with one family in a circular, domed tent called a yurt. The one-room structure was about 20 feet wide and sparsely furnished. Besides Richardson and Harrison, a family of five, including three young children, slept in the yurt on rugs.

Richardson was most impressed by the children, who had few possessions but seemed content. "These children are very different from American children," he says. "What they have is not much. But I've never seen children as happy as these children are. They're always smiling and able to play with very limited things."

In the fall many of the nomad families split up, and one parent will move to the nearby town of Hovd, where the children attend school. The other family members remain in the countryside, packing their belongings onto a truck and moving three or four times a season when the animals exhaust the forage at each site. Richardson was so captivated with the Mongolian people that he ended up taking 2,800 photographs. His pictures capture the undulating fields, children helping with chores, women cooking, and the families' goats, horses, and sheep.

His latest photographic adventure is returning to Montana and Wyoming to take pictures of the ecosystem in Yellowstone National Park. When he is not traveling Richardson lives in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he owns a motion picture equipment rental supply business, Atomic Dolly and Crane Rental. Richardson says he hopes to return to Mongolia and present some of his pictures to the families he visited. "I'm looking forward," he says, "to being able to give back to this community."

Kelly Richardson invites you to get in touch with him to learn more about his projects: mongoliaphotos@kellyrichardson.com

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