Observations & Orchestrations
A Journey to motherhood via the Mongolian Steppe
Words by Kerry J Dean
My first trip to Mongolia was fourteen years ago. I went to volunteer for a charity working with Przewalkski horses; rare and endangered they have been said to be the last truly wild horse remaining in the world. In my mind Mongolia was a wild and untamed place and for the first time I wasn’t flooded with images and pre-determined notions of what I might encounter before even stepping onto the flight.
Honestly speaking, I went there on a personal journey that had little to do with volunteering or horses. It was some sort of knee jerk reaction to London city living and wanting to remove myself from that for a while.
That trip and the resulting body of work led to my first solo exhibition entitled, The Emptiness of a Land With No Fences. The images communicate the openness and sense of unending space that is so enthralling in Mongolia but, in some ways they seem quite naïve to me now; that said I still have them on my wall and I probably always will because they represent the start of an enduring obsession with the country and its culture.
After my initial visit it took me 10 years to get back to Mongolia. This gap between visits brought into focus how much the country had changed and also how much I had changed; not only in myself but, in terms of the kind of images I wanted to make.
Whilst there the second time around I worked on the portrait series the Pom-Pom Girls. We were filming out in the Gobi when I spotted the first a young girl walking to school wearing the most insane amount of white chiffon on her head—huge pom-poms enveloping her pigtails. The landscape is so large and barren that there was something so incongruous about this synthetic flourish in such a wild and remote backdrop.
After seeing and stopping to photograph the first pom-pom girl, I became obsessed with finding more subjects. The word spread throughout the village quickly and before long I’d have daily visits to my yurt from an array of beautiful girls sporting pom-poms in a variety of garish colours.
The portraits were well received but I felt that they were unfinished. I felt that there was so much more to unravel and discover and I knew I wanted to return to Mongolia again to pursue that. I had a sense that I wanted not just to observe but to orchestrate and exaggerate situations, going beyond documentary. That’s why I’ve called the ever-evolving body of work that started with that cloud of white chiffon on a tiny head, Observation and Orchestrations.
On returning home I became pregnant. It was definitely not a surprise pregnancy. It was long and it was planned—there is nothing casual about two rounds of IVF.
Whilst going through the process I’d always had the thought of how I’d continue to work but also specifically how I’d pursue my work in Mongolia and half way through my pregnancy I decided I wanted to return. One last time. Before I became a mother.
The reaction to my decision to return whilst pregnant was very mixed. My husband, my mum, and my best friend were incredibly supportive, not without some concern but ultimately, they were behind the decision.
After I had made the decision to travel and shoot in such a remote country whilst heavily pregnant the driving force was my mid-wife. I met her through the NHS, and became very close, we’re still friends today. She was very pragmatic about the potential concerns but she was also an avid believer in carrying on doing what was/is important to me. So, we made a plan that we revisited over and over. My NCT group, were a little different. When we sat in our weekly circle, legs crossed discussing that week’s aches and pains I mentioned the word Mongolia and there were definitely a few raised eyebrows.
Any concerns dissipated when I finally arrived. My amazing fixer and friend Ishee was aware of needing to keep me as close to a hospital as possible so we engineered trips that were close to the city. He drove us around daily and basically looked after us, so once I was there I felt very safe.
It was such a different trip to my previous experiences; a strange mix of really wanting to make it work photographically because there were so many factors that had to align for me to get there in the first place, and at the same time not wanting to push myself too much as I had something far more important to prioritize.
I was conflicted in a way that I had never experienced before in relation to my work. I was conscious of being careful; no riding horses, no wrestling, no hanging off the edge of trucks filming a race, no vodka and no mare’s milk tea; well actually I did drink mare’s milk tea once and my husband nearly had an aneurism when I told him. Suffice to say I’ve always thrown myself into travelling and experiencing new cultures so this new cautious approach was really quite alien.
I went back to the national park where I volunteered all those years ago, where the same local people were still living and working and it surprised me how emotional I felt being there. From being 20-something, feeling quite lost but very free, to being in my late 30s married and pregnant, very much committed. Times and places can feel like turning points in life, can’t they? I didn’t necessarily realize it in the moment but looking back Mongolia was that for me. I think somehow re-visiting that exact place made me feel like I was revisiting the past.
Being pregnant in Mongolia, apart from being physically cumbersome at times was actually a great conversation opener, especially amongst the women. In many ways it helped to make connections. It amazed me how interested and engaged the men to seemed with pregnancy. Not once did anyone ask me how I thought it may impact on my career.
When I returned from that trip, I felt incredibly proud of what I had achieved. Proud that I had taken my baby to a place that meant so much to me and that he was with me during this valuable time of building this personal work. It was very empowering and something I’ll go on to tell him in years to come.
When I was pregnant I was in a state of panic that I wouldn’t work again, that once I’d had a child it would be impossible. I actually remember a female friend in the industry advising me to tell clients that I had a nanny in place immediately or I wouldn’t get booked again.
Once I was a mother it took a while to regain or reform my identity for sure. I had an idea whilst pregnant that when I’d had a child I would carry on as I did before, that life would be the same +1, it actually couldn’t be further from the truth. I think a natural edit happens because quite simply time is not what it once was; I don’t have endless amounts of it.
I do also feel there has been a shift in attitudes to motherhood and work and I now find myself talking about my son and my projects as being linked because simply put, they are. I’m not sure if that effects the amount of work I get but I do believe we all need to be talking about it more as opposed to pretending we’re all single free and 25. It seems ludicrous. Why is experience not admired and desired more? I don’t just mean parenthood. I mean that I couldn’t have seen Mongolia in the way I do now without having visited and worked there over many years and with long gaps in between trips. It’s the observation of time and change that is so valuable to me and I wish the industry I work in was able to value and celebrate that more.
I’ve thought a lot about the kind of mother I want to be. The balance of wanting to be a role model for my son in following my own passions as well as wanting to be very available and present for him. Surely there’s space for both.