According to a survey made by the Mongolian government, around 850 of the country’s lakes and 2000 of its rivers and streams have now dried out. This loss of water is contributing to the process of desertification: as much as 25% of Mongolian land has turned into desert over the past 30 years.
Further studies suggest that up to 75% of its territories could be at risk. These serious climatic changes are threatening nomadic life: a tradition which has been central to Mongolian culture throughout history. Even with changes brought about by urbanisation in recent years, 35% of Mongolians are still living a nomadic existence. These people depend on their vast, open lands for survival.
In the series Futuristic Archaeology, Korean photographer Daesung Lee draws attention to this disappearing way of life. The artist takes inspiration from museum dioramas – freeze-framed vignettes of animals and people in their habitats, which reached the height of their popularity in the 20th century. Their goal: to transport viewers back in time, or to an entirely different part of the world.
Daesung Lee takes this one step further: constructing real life dioramas with actual people and their livestock. The images are captured on location, with desertified areas of Mongolia as backdrops. Idealised versions of the landscape are printed on large billboards and placed in conjunction with the actual horizon. Individuals stand behind red and gold rope barriers. Outside the frame, onlookers stare in.
“The concept is that these people have been forced to go into a museum diorama for survival,” the photographer told Lensculture. Nomadism has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, yet many have now traded in this way of life for employment in urban areas. “In the future, I imagine that Mongolian nomadic life might only exist behind the velvet rope of an exhibition.”
Daesung Lee’s works have been recognised by renowned publications such as CNN, Le Monde and The Washington Post, as well as prizes including the Sony World Photography Awards. He was nominated for the Prix Pictet in 2016 and Prix Niépce in 2019. The photographer is particularly interested in human activity and its impact on the Earth; his career started with a documentary series on mining sites in Asia.
Words: Eleanor Sutherland
Image Credits: Futuristic Archaeology © Daesung Lee.