Eagle huntress photos by 24-year-old documentary photographer go viral
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) April 20, 2014
You know those stunning photos bouncing around the Internet of the Mongolian children hunting with eagles? The 24-year-old photographer who took them self-financed his expedition and at first had a hard time selling the images at all.
Asher Svidensky told me in a Skype interview Thursday that he got three offers from magazines in his home country of Israel. One offered him $80 and a byline. The other offered to run the photos for free along with a credit. A third suggested that he pay them $200 to publish the photo essay, because it would help his tour guide business.
Svidensky said he trained as a documentary photographer during his service in the Israeli Army. Since his release, he’s wanted to strike out as a freelance travel photographer. He’s done a lot of commercial and PR work, and served as a tour guide for Israelis traveling through Mongolia and Kazakhstan. “I took a lot of pictures of things I didn’t want to photograph,” he said.
In 2013, he packed his Canon gear, two shirts and a bag and set off on an open-ended trip to Mongolia. He planned to travel through Asia and document a variety of cultures, but Svidensky found himself drawn to the tradition of hunting with eagles.
He spent 40 days on the story. A lot of that time involved knocking on doors, learning the culture, deciphering the story. Ultimately, he decided he wanted to document children learning to hunt at the traditional starting age of 13. “There was no telephone book to say where the hunters are,” he told me. “It was just like a children’s book. You knock on a door and find out there is no kid here. Then you go to a house and they have a kid, but he’s too scared of the eagle. Or the father doesn’t want to go into the mountains.”
Eventually he met Irka Bolen, a 13-year-old boy in training and the main subject of his photos. Together they trekked into the mountains on horseback.
While the photos are breathtaking, Svidensky felt like the story was incomplete. The culture of that region is changing and he wanted to capture that as well. That’s when he discovered Ashol-Pan, a Khazak girl who may be the only eagle huntress in the world.
He went into the mountains with her and her father as well. But the story Svidensky documents is not the simplistic one that’s taken root in social media. The girl was training with her father, but not considered a full-fledged hunter. Her father told Svidensky that he had trained a son before her, but he was conscripted into the army. He would only continue training his daughter if she continued to ask for it.
In his blog, Svidensky quotes the father: “It’s been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn't dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place.”
That nuance was often lost as the photos ricocheted around the world via social media. Most of the news organizations and blogs that have republished them have focused exclusively on the girl, ignoring the ambiguity of her future as an eagle hunter. Some headlines changed the context completely, like “13-year-old Mongolian girl hunts with eagle, has coolest childhood ever.”
But Svidensky isn’t upset. He’s relieved people are seeing the photos at all.
After his initial disappointment trying to sell the pictures to magazines, Svidensky published four images on 1x.com, a curated photo blog. From there, the U.K.-based Caters News Agency spotted the work and contacted him. Now, Svidensky gets a cut every time the pictures are published. Since the BBC Magazine and radio program have highlighted his work, the images have caught the imaginations of many. He believes he will recoup his financial investment.
“But that’s not what’s important,” he said. “This is my dream to be a documentary photographer. My hope is that through this project, I will get other opportunities.”