Many photographers have documented Mongolia’s threatened nomadic culture by capturing the everyday life of nomads. But Paris-based photographer Daesung Lee didn’t want to document as much as he wanted to preserve. For the second chapter of his ongoing project on climate change, Lee created living dioramas of the Mongolian landscape and filled them with nomads who had had to give up their traditional lifestyle.
“35% of Mongolians are living a nomadic life,” Lee wrote in his artist statement. “According to a survey made by the Mongolian government, around 850 lakes and 2000 rivers and streams have dried out. This loss of water is contributing to the desertification of Mongolia, as 25% of its land has turned into desert in the past 30 years. Potentially 75 % of Mongolian territory is at risk of desertification. These environmental changes directly threaten the Mongolian nomadic way of life, which has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years.”
Long before the information age, museums provided windows to other worlds. “The only way to really to connect people with the wonder of nature would be to recreate it inside the museum — and the diorama was the medium of choice,” retired American Museum of Natural History artist Stephen C. Quinn told NPR. To create the museum’s dioramas scientists and artists would spend sometimes months traveling to take pictures and collect specimens before painstakingly creating a picture of a faraway place piece-by-piece, preserving a moment frozen in time. Lee’s dioramas show what would happen if traditional Mongolian culture fades away and is only seen inside a museum.
“The nomadic life in Mongolia better alive … I thought that we better preserve the society and the culture,” Lee told In Sight. That culture can then have “function and meaning” instead of being “preserved like a fossil in museum,” he said.
To create the dioramas in “Futuristic Archaeology,” Lee photographed the “ideal environmental landscape.” He then printed them on billboards. With the help of Green Asia Network, a Korean NGO that plants trees in Mongolia to fight desertification, he found former nomads forced by climate change to abandon traditional ways of life. Lee then set both up on plots of degraded land to create his narrative.
Though nomads did not cause climate change, they are its first victims, he said. “I hope people realize that we are connected and impact others” Lee told In Sight, “as long as we do not change this, there will be our turn to pay. ”