Mongolia is often touted as one of the last unexplored frontiers on this planet. For photographer Madoka Ikegami, a journey to the nation was about more than just the landscape, though. The Tsaatan people who live in the remote East Taiga region in northern Mongolia have long been a subject of fascination.
Ikegami, a freelance photographer who has worked in Asia and Australia on a wide range of assignments, was originally moved by a photo she had seen of a Tsaatan child peacefully resting against the stomach of a white reindeer. She explains, “This picture was an amazing moment of the co-existence of human and reindeer. I just wanted to witness it myself.” So she made the strenuous journey from Beijing, China to the East Taiga to capture the daily lives and practices of one of the last remaining groups of nomadic reindeer herders in Mongolia.
What struck Ikegami the most about the Tsaatan people is their complete codependence with the reindeer, who are in some ways treated as family members. The Tsaatan communities, often consisting of two to seven households, migrate seasonally within the forests of Taiga in attempts to find optimum grazing and weather conditions for the reindeer. Their lifestyles, chores, and activities, which have been carried out for thousands of years, are centered around the reindeer for whom they depend on for milk, tools, and transportation.
Ikegami’s photos embody both the beautiful resilience of the Tsaatan people and their harmony with the vast, ever-changing environment that they simultaneously love and struggle to survive within. “Sometimes I feel like giving up when the snow is 2 meters deep and no matter how much I try, I can’t reach the wood that I need to chop to feed our fires,” Ganbat, a father of 5 children tells Ikegami. “But I love my reindeer which my ancestors raised for generations. The only thing keeping me here is my reindeer.”
My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Madoka Ikegami.