All photographs are copyrighted by Scott Turner and are being used with permission.
Building trust is essential to any documentary project, and it’s something that can take time. In the course of traveling through Asia, American photographer Scott Turner found himself in Kyrgyzstan and stayed there because “there’s a certain pulse to life” that he hasn’t found anywhere else. So, he lived and worked with them in the beautifully vast grassy fields, and he found that the more time he spent with them, the closer he got.
Robert Capa’s famous adage, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is twofold. There’s a physical proximity that’s necessary as well as an emotional proximity, and the closer you are emotionally, the better your photos will be. Scott’s managed to achieve both, and with a grant from VSCO’s Artist Initiative, he’s been able to work on this project long-term. Here, he shares his insights, the story behind the project, and some of the necessary considerations for working on a project like this in a remote location.
Phoblographer: In the description of your Kyrgyz project on VSCO, we learn that you were
initially interested in landscapes, but later made the transition to photographing people. What spurred the change, and what was it like making that switch?
Scott: Honestly it was travel that caused the change. Travel and photography have always been linked for me, it’s photos of the wild places and beautiful sunsets that got me interested in the craft in the first place. But over time I’ve realized that travel is as much or more about who you meet as it is where you go. Some of my most memorable travel experiences happened in the most banal and unexpected places. I felt this growing urge to always put a person in the frame for perspective when I photographed a city scape or landscape. It was that human element that I began to look for in my images, the ones that help us understand ourselves and how we fit in to the greater scope of life on this planet. And it kind of just developed from there.
Phoblographer: What brought you to Asia, and what was it about Kyrgyzstan that made you want to dive deeper?
Scott: I spent two summers in China back in 2008 and 2009. That was my first experience outside of the U.S., and it flipped my world upside down. I knew from then on that I wanted to live in Asia one day. There’s a certain pulse to life here that I’ve never found anywhere else in the world yet. The density of people, the diversity of culture, and the depth of history are all incredibly fascinating for me.
I latched on to Kyrgyzstan harder than other places because of the story I’m documenting here. Part of this project I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about is that I’m also writing an article to go along with it; something I really want to try to publish in print when I’m done. The beautiful thing about the shepherds is that their lifestyle, which is a direct reflection of their legacy and heritage as a people group, has actually provided a way to sustain them economically in hard times. So often what we hear is stories of people’s traditional ways of life dying out because it doesn’t fit with the times, but there has been a resurgence in Kyrgyzstan. Statistically, Kyrgyzstan has one of the worst economies on the planet, and the shepherds play a big role in reducing absolute poverty and providing a means of living for people. Though it’s not nomadic subsistence living anymore, the shepherds have found a way to use their legacy and natural abilities with animals as a small business in a modern world. And I thought that it was a story worth telling.
Phoblographer: There’s a raw honesty in your photographs of the Kyrgyz that helps to reveal who they are. How have you managed to develop a relationship with them, and what are you looking to show through your photographs?
Scott: I want people to see this tension in a hard but beautiful lifestyle. I couldn’t have said it better than a shepherd himself: “We don’t have a lot, and it’s not always an easy way to live, but we have family and have [a beautiful life in the mountains]. What else do we really need in life?” I was really struck by this perspective; so often in the world I’m from, we tend to view a life like this as “poverty” because they have so little in comparison, but I think wealth is determined more by what we value rather than what we have. They may not have a lot of money, but the shepherds live a pretty beautiful life.
Generally speaking, I approach photography of people with a mirror principle: the photographs of your subjects are a reflection of the relationship that you have with them. Being human with people will often lead to them being human in front of your camera. With the shepherds I found that becoming a more active participant in their world, like riding a horse around with them through hail storms and helping them to actually do the shepherding work went a long way. They could see that I was truly and genuinely interested in their lives and reality they live in everyday, because I was putting myself right in the middle of it.
Phoblographer: What are some of the technical choices you made going into this project? What’s in your bag?
Scott: Weight was the number one consideration; horses can only carry so much for so long. We rode for almost a month on horseback for this project, and with too much weight, the horses would have been worn out too quickly. With all of the camping and outdoor gear we brought, I had to keep my camera gear minimal. All I brought was my Leica M9 and 35mm/50mm lenses in a small waist pack I could access from horseback (I also had a Fuji XT1 with a zoom in the saddle bags as a backup). The other critical gear I had to bring was a solar panel to keep my cameras powered up in such a remote place, and I brought a Voltaic Systems solar laptop charger for that.
Phoblographer: What have you learned about yourself as a photographer through working on this project?
Scott: How much I love shooting stories. I’ve been living out a backpack for almost two years now, traveling and photographing as I go, and I’ve grown more interested in creating some cohesive work recently. This project in Kyrgyzstan really has confirmed that on all levels. I believe that the single photograph is beautiful and has meaning, and that it is really important to make every photo count even within the story, but storytellingis definitely where my photography is headed.
Phoblographer: At the outset of any substantial photography undertaking, there is a conscious choice to shoot in either black and white or color. Why did you choose color?
Scott: I considered black and white, but I felt the photographs would have been missing a big piece of the story had I shot it that way. The environment the shepherds live in really sets the tone for the whole project, and I wanted the viewer to have a strong sense of place. Without the color, I felt like the images would have been too abstract, and actually would have made it harder for the viewer to feel their environment. The mountain landscape is pretty monotone anyway, and the simplicity of tones and colors allowed me to isolate the shepherds on this backdrop pretty easily, unlike shooting in an urban environment where the colors and tones often compete or clash with each other.
Phoblographer: How will the grant from the VSCO Artist Initiative help to further your project?
Scott: Well this project wouldn’t have happened without their support financially, but even more than that, I’m grateful for VSCO taking an interest in this story from an often forgotten part of the world. A lot of people don’t even know where Kyrgyzstan is, and VSCO’s support through the Artist Initiative really provided a platform for me to show people a slice of life that otherwise probably wouldn’t be seen.
Phoblographer: If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to start a documentary photo project, what would that piece of advice be?
Scott: Do your research. I can’t emphasize this enough, it will help you focus your time while you are out shooting. Read and plan as much as you can before hand and have a clear idea of what you are after. Use your research to create opportunities for great images before you start.
For more of Scott’s work, check out his website.