“Like going to war.” This is how one of the wrestlers in photographer Ken Hermann and art director Gem Fletcher‘s project Bökh, describes Mongolian wrestling. Shot in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the resulting portraits and short film pay respect to this ancient tradition.
It’s a tradition that is still very much alive in the nomadic communities that account for 30% of the country’s population. “When a boy is born in Inner Mongolia, his family pray for him to become a wrestler,” Hermann and Fletcher reveal. The sport is a status symbol that is the main focus in the life of many young Mongolian men.
Why Mongolia? “I have always wanted to go to Mongolia and been very fascinated about that part of the world,” Hermann tells us via email. “And when I first heard about the wrestlers, I had the perfect excuse to go. Gemma and I had worked together on several projects and are a pretty good team. She is very creative and I’m very technical, which works well together.”
The imagery speaks for itself. Powerful and dignified, the collaboration has given fruit to a layered project. Bökh not only visually preserves the tradition, but looks at how Mongolian wrestling is used to define manliness within the community.
Hermann and Fletcher shot the project over the course of 10 days. During that time, they slowly built trust with a wrestling coach who introduced them to their eventual protagonists.
“After spending time getting to know the wrestlers, one thing which stood out was how they navigate between the past and present,” the duo observes. “As young men they intuitively transition between a passionate dedication to continuing this cultural tradition which dates back centuries, while also being interested in present day fashion and culture, despite having exceptionally limited connection to the internet and living in a very remote location.”
Scroll down to see more of their dynamic and powerful portraits, as well as a short film that looks at the culture of Mongolian wrestling.