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A photographer spent 17 years exploring the barren expanse of Mongolia and returned with unreal photos

Harrison Jacobs
  • New York-based photographer Frédéric Lagrange has visited Mongolia 13 times over the last 17 years, traversing the country in every season to capture stunning photographs of the people and the landscape.
  • In Mongolia, Lagrange has experienced extreme weather, had his life saved thanks to the Mongolian army, and seen the country evolve and develop tremendously.
  • Lagrange has collected his nearly two decades worth of work into a limited-edition book to be published in November. He launched a Kickstarter this week as a pre-sale of the book.

New York-based photographer Frédéric Lagrange first heard about Mongolia as a child.

His grandfather would tell him stories about World War II, when served in the French army and was a prisoner of war in Germany. In 1944, a detachment of Mongolian soldiers under Soviet command freed Lagrange's grandfather, who described the terror the German soldiers showed when they saw the soldiers. Ever since, Lagrange has been fascinated with the country and was resolved to visit it.

He got his first chance in August 2001, taking an entire month off his job as a photographer's assistant to visit the remote country. He was immediately taken with the landscape and the people, but, most of all, he told Business Insider, he was taken with "the incredible, overwhelming stillness of the place."

In the 17 years since, he has visited Mongolia 13 times, traversing the entirety of the country in winter, summer, fall, and spring.

"There is a stillness and a quietness that I found quite captivating at the time," Lagrange said. "It's a very meditative state. You feel the presence and the moments way stronger than back in the US or anywhere else."

A limited-edition book of Lagrange's 17-year exploration of Mongolia will be published by Italian publisher Damiani in November. Lagrange launched a Kickstarter this week as a pre-sale of the book, which you can check out here »

Mongolia is more than twice the size of Texas, but only has a population of 2.76 million people compared to Texas's 26 million. Thirty per cent of Mongolia's population is nomadic or semi-nomadic.

Lagrange first visited Mongolia in the summer of 2001.

His first impression, he told Business Insider, was of the "incredible, overwhelming stillness of the place."

"You are always surrounded by vastness," Lagrange said. No matter where you turn, he said, there are always three levels of colour and texture around you: the fields, the remote mountains, and the sky.

When Lagrange went on his first trip, he knew nobody in the country. But, over the years, he has established friendships with the guides, fixers, and drivers that he works with on his trips. Most are based in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city.

Lagrange visited the country in every season. Spring was breathtakingly beautiful.

Summer was full of life.

The colours were always spectacular, especially in autumn.

But winter was brutal. When he visited in 2004, Lagrange and his team got caught in a snowstorm in a remote area. Sometimes, they get so bad people need to evacuate the area, like this family.

Lagrange's Jeep got stuck in the snow. An army convoy passing by helped them get out and took them to their base on the Chinese border. There he was able to take portraits of the soldiers, like this man.

Hospitality is a huge part of Mongolian culture, due in no small part to the sparse population and brutal weather.

Whenever Lagrange and his team stopped at a home, there was a spread of food to welcome guests.

"There is always bedding and an extra meal [in Mongolian homes] in case a traveller" needs shelter, Lagrange said. "They come for the night ... new connections and friendships are created. That's how the web of the country has been built." Travellers are sometimes the only way news travels.

By the end of Lagrange's second trip, he was convinced that he should do a book to show the landscape, history, and culture in Mongolia. He didn't anticipate it taking him 17 years to feel as though he'd captured the country's vast diversity.

In 2006, he witnessed wrestlers practicing at Horshoolol Sports Club in Ulaanbaatar for Naadam, a yearly festival where Mongolians compete in horse-racing, archery, and wrestling or "bokh."

Around the same time, he saw acrobats training for the National Circus in Ulaanbatar.

There was a lot of life to see and witness. In 2005, he saw workers load flour bags from wheat fields in Dornod Province.

In 2015, Lagrange captured this portrait of hunter Kuantkhan Ologban in Western Mongolia. It is customary for Kazakhs, many of whom live in Mongolia, to use eagles for hunting.

In a good year, an eagle can catch up to 30 animals.

Last year, he climbed to the top of Shilin Bogd, the highest peak in the northern city of Sukhbaatar. Staff from the Ulaanbaatar airport placed an iron statue of an aeroplane there and wrapped it in a ceremonial scarf for good luck.

Lagrange developed a strong connection with the people he met and the places he went to after returning for so many years.

That connection was sometimes painful. A few years later after taking this portrait, he returned with a print to gift to the woman. "The mother stared at the photo for a moment and then, without a word, and looking upset, she left," Lagrange said. Her husband said that that the baby died of a virus a few weeks after the portrait was taken. The photo was the only image they had ever seen of the baby.

In 2006, Lagrange and his team were driving over Khovsgol Lake, a common shortcut when it is frozen in the winter. He spotted these two men one morning on the lake, drunk on cheap vodka.

But conditions can become dangerous in an instant. While Lagrange and his team were following another truck across the ice, the ice cracked.

The ice collapsed and the truck in front of Lagrange's fell into the lake. The three passengers scrambled out. By nighttime, the ice had frozen again. A team of of dozen men pulled the truck out with trucks and cables. "The rescue was an example of the incredible resilience and determination I have often seen and admired in the Mongol people," said Lagrange.

Lagrange met all kinds of people in his travels through Mongolia, like this herder at Tolboo Lake in 2015.

The concept of land is different from Western cultures. Because there is so much land and so few people outside of Ulaanbaatar, there is little worry about trespassing on someone else's property.

"You won't be stopped by fences in Mongolia. There is no such thing as limited lands," Lagrange said. "You don't need to have your hundred horses stay on one piece of land."

While Ulaanbaatar has changed dramatically over the years, "the rhythm of the herder way of life hasn't evolved much," said Lagrange.

The biggest difference he noticed was seeing more cell phones, TV sets, and pickup trucks.

The other major change is among the people he met. Lagrange often returns to villages and families that he had once visited to bring them copies of their portrait as a gift.

Often he will learn that some person he knew or met has died in the intervening years.

Life in Mongolia is as much about surviving as it is about living, Lagrange said.

"Death is an omnipresent thing in the daily life of villages in Mongolia," said Lagrange.

The real weight of Lagrange's project hits you when you see these two images side by side. The one on the left of a ranger named Altai was one of the first images he shot for the project. The one on the right shows Altai this past April. Altai has aged so much, according to Lagrange, due to his constant exposure to Monglia's harsh weather and his love of vodka.

Lagrange's work is a fascinating document of both a people ...

in all their varied complexity.

And a place ...

...as diverse as the people.