Going Underground with the Homeless of Ulan Bator


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Going Underground with the Homeless of Ulan Bator

Alcoholic Mongolians are living in tunnels.

Photographer Mikel Aristregi really gets a kick out of photographing different ethnic regions and subcultures throughout Asia. His newest series, -40/96°, documents desolate, homeless people in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, who attempt to escape the bone-chilling cold by living in the intricate underground tunnels that house the city's hot-water pipes. Many of them are alcoholics too, getting wasted off of 200-proof Mongolian moonshine. Mikel's pictures feel as if they could have only been created by a compatriot of these doomed people, but Mikel was born in the Basque region of Spain, so despite his ethnic (and situational) remove, he's become adept at framing his photographs as if he were one of his subjects. I interviewed him to see how the hell he manages to overcome these barriers and make such immersive and emotionally intimate photographs.


It's an honour to finally talk to you, Mikel. You are originally from the Basque part of Spain, yet you consistently do your projects in Asia. How did you communicate with your subjects? Do you learn the language of each place prior to going, or do you overcome the language barrier in some other way?
Mikel Aristregi: Being able to understand people you are photographing is a basic necessity. For that reason, I enlisted the help of Zoolbo, a young Mongolian English student brave enough to go into their world. I usually try to learn very basic words just to be able to say something when I'm without the translator. And also because people appreciate the effort you do to learn their language, even if you don't know much, the connection between the two parts is better and faster. Everybody likes to have their culture respected by others.

You are definitely honouring these people, photographing mostly unknown sub-cultures and presenting their issues that are hidden from most of the world. On a similar tone, your subjects in -40/96° series seem to have reached a point of lonely desperation, ridden by alcoholism. How did you manage to get these kinds of people to allow you to photograph them in such a low point in their lives?
I started frequenting the piece of open land next to Harhorin Market, at the western part of Ulan Bator, one of the two main points in the city where they are gathered. I tried to explain to them what I was doing there, and asked if they would allow me to spend time with them and take photos, but communication was really hard. They accepted me because they thought they could get something back, like money, food or cigarettes. They were looking for immediate personal profit, so getting closer took me some time.


Despite having an interpreter, communication was difficult, since they were drunk, easily distracted and had trouble understanding. Sometimes they became aggressive, asking for money with threats. When this happened, Zoolbo, my translator, and I had to distance ourselves and wait for things to calm down. Their moods were unpredictable and changed from one minute to another.

Despite this instability, your connection with your subjects certainly prevailed. As a photojournalist covering such visceral and poignant subject matter, documenting people who seem to really need some assistance, do you ever feel the need to step in and help in some way? Or did you want to be a silent observer and not interject, as to better capture the true nature of the situation?
I always try to be a silent observer in a general context, at least at first. I think there are few things you can do to help such a big group of people while you are shooting, in the short term. Keep making photos and trust in your work, trust in the repercussions that it can have in the future (perhaps getting involved with an NGO, for example) is the best way to help them in my opinion. Of course, as you get closer to them, it's impossible not to help one, bringing him to the hospital, buying some food or things like that. As the days pass, you start feeling empathy for some of them, so it's hard not to act beyond just taking photos.


For example, a young man of 25, Enkhbaatar, had been drinking since he was 15. His parents died when he was a child, so he spent his childhood and youth living with NGOs and in state-run orphanages. Now he lives on the streets. He has a daughter, but his wife doesn't allow contact. He lost sight in one eye during a fight and now has frequent heavy headaches.

I met him at an evangelical center where he was trying to move away from the "bad life," as he called it. A Bible is the only psychological support these alcoholics get at the center, so after ten days Enkhbaatar ran away and started drinking again. Days later, I found very him sick, so I took him to the hospital and, of course, I paid the bill and the medicines for the treatment; you just can't say no, you don't want to say no!

I guess it is ultimately the photographer's decision as to what degree they should be ethical and intervene. Speaking of absurd stories, what is the background surrounding the image of the woman with circular marks on her body being carried away by people in military uniforms? It fits with the rest of the photographs, but has more of a political charge than the other images.
I know it's very impressive, but it isn't what people may think; it has nothing to see with repression or torture done by police. These circles are caused with a technique of Chinese traditional medicine consisting of putting cupping glasses on the back to stimulate blood circulation. This technique is pretty common in Asia. It was just a coincidence that the woman arrested for being drunk and causing troubles had been treated by this medical technique.


Speaking of interesting traditons, there is something curious I've noticed about you. All of the work on your website is done in diverse parts of Asia. Is there a reason you are particularly drawn to these areas? Asian fever?
Not really. I did my first long trip to the Southeast Asia just because an ex-girlfriend wanted to go there. Once in Cambodia, I met some people that brought me back, this time to document the daily life of the street children of Phnom Penh. So I got some money, and I stayed five months there. Then, I got a Fotopress grant to work in Ulan Bator, so that's where I went. Looks like trips and subjects are somehow connected for me; one takes me to the next.

Excited to see where your latest work will lead you!

Check out -40/96° and Mikel Aristregi's other photo-documentaries on his website.