Adam Jahiel Photographs of Kyrgyzstan at Ucross Foundation Art Gallery, WY


 Imagine the American west a century ago, an overwhelming agricultural place with most tasks done by hand or animal power, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of modern rural Kyrgyzstan. Men and women cut hay with scythes, hand-pitching it into ancient Soviet-made army trucks or carts pulled by horses or a donkey. Entire meals come from a personal garden and a home-slaughtered animal.      Life is basic. Donkeys bray. Chickens squabble over fallen apples. There’s a lot of barking dogs. A nicer home, made of hand-pressed brick or concrete, has no inner plumbing or central heating. Water comes from a hand pump. Dung or coal-burning stoves supply heat. The one luxury is rugs, which line the walls and floors.      Kyrgyzstan and the northern Rockies share remarkably similar attributes. They are both high altitude, landlocked entities with a history of a horse culture, economies based on free-ranging sheep or cattle, and water struggles (Kyrgyzstan is a headwaters state in constant battle with downstream users Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan over who gets what water.      The two regions even share a similar plant community: windbreaks rustle with box elder, mountain ash, Chinese elm, and Russian olive. Willows line creekbeds; pig-weed and thistle dot the edges of alfalfa fields. Like the high plains old American west, Kyrgyzstan is wide open. One can travel a hundred kilometers of grazing land without seeing a fence.     So imagine traveling in Kyrgyzstan with Adam Jahiel, a photographer known for documenting life in one the west’s wildest places: the Great Basin of Nevada, northern Utah, and southeastern Oregon.        The Last Cowboy Project, as it was called, garnered Adam international acclaim.  Adam’s photographs of cowboys, horses, salt flats, and sage-cover prairie have such power because they’re free of the sentimentality that plague most cowboy or western art. Technically flawless, stark – but not ostentatiously harsh – the photos rarely stray from the idea that humans are part of the landscape, something Group f/64 (think Edwin Weston’s peppers of Ansel Adam’s Yosemite) studiously ignored.     Few photographs taken in Kyrgyzstan capture this human/land bond more than Adam’s photo of a young herder’s daughter. We had stopped at a highland pass to look at the map. A group of children approached our van. Polina, our fearless guide, made small talk with them, offering them candy from a bag she carried in the van. Adam’s camera began clicking immediately, focusing on one girl, striking for her poise, her willingness to look right into the camera, the femininity of her pierced ears and her frayed, pink sweater. Mongol warriors conquered nations for beauties like this.  Her world, however, lies in the background, harsh, rocky, and green only in summer.      Adam got the picture because, like all good photographers, he has the ability to gently cajole and convince people to sit or stand for a portrait. Neither does he fear issuing commands when opportunities arise.  We would be traveling along on some isolated stretch of road and suddenly from the back of the van would come Adam’s urgent voice: stop, stop…stop the car.      We would pull over and watch Adam trot off, multiple cameras bouncing, in search of an image or object or person he’d seen out the window.        Both Adam and I were in Kyrgyzstan courtesy of Vista 360, a Jackson, Wyoming-based organization decided to helping mountain communities both rich (Jackson Hole, Mt. Fuji, Japan) and poor (Kyrgyzstan, Uruguay) deal with globalization. Adam and I went to Kyrgyzstan as a team. There was neither pay nor an obligation to publish anything, but rather a charge give the world a lens on one of the least-known countries on the planet.     Vista 360 supports itself, in part, by buying art and artisanal products of the poor mountain countries and selling them in the west. This required Vista 360 executive director, Candra Day, to visit individual artists.  We got to come along, meaning access to obscure places and isolated communities, an ideal situation for the curious photographer.      Adam captures the human element even without people in the photo. Kyrgyzstan is an economic wreck of a nation, still reeling from the collapse of its benefactor, the Soviet Union, 20 years ago. The photo of a pathetic gate, impotent without a fence on either side, gives testament someone’s failed dream. It’s remarkable the gate remains. The Kyrgyz take most unguarded metal and sell it to the Chinese for scrap.      Still, one set of boundaries remains inviolate: fences and gates surrounding graveyards. These spooky places, gothic in a Muslim sort of way with their ornate graves, drew Adam’s attention and no wonder. Kyrgyz do not tend their graves. Once the dead are buried, it’s considered taboo to return to the tomb.  These graveyards, some the size of small villages, would rise up out of nowhere on the steppes, sepulchers and steles gleaming in the bright sun, surrounded by weeds and wind-carried detritus, perfectly unearthly.      Life is not cushy in rural Kyrgyzstan. A cotton picker, for example, gets under a nickel for every kilogram they harvest. A 100 kilogram day is a good haul.  When you can get away with paying a worker $5.00 a day, there is little incentive to buy a $400,000 mechanical cotton harvester.  Like so many third-world counties, it’s the women who do the bulk of the manual labor.     They make their money where they can it, finding opportunity in odd places, including haying in the woods. Kyrgyzstan is home to one of the world’s largest walnut forests.  While valued for the nuts and exploited for beautiful wood (commonly known as Turkish or Circassian walnut), these forests often have a thick, grass understory. This exhibit includes a photograph of colorfully dressed women (and two young boys) there to harvest that hay. The grass was all cut with scythes and pitched into a wagon with hand-carved pitchforks. The foreman (not present in this photograph) was a handsome man who spoke beautiful Russian.     Kyrgyz are great roadside hawkers, handy for a traveling photographer. You can even buy a quart of gasoline, sold in an old glass jar, along the road. More common are food vendors, especially those selling apples. The apple was born in the foothills of Tien Shan, a mountain range shared by Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China. The Kyryz relish apples in their many form (a woman in one of Adam’s photographs is selling three varieties) and particularly like them dried.  When apple season arrives, vendors crowd the roads. I don’t know how much money any hawker can make. Competition is stiff. Less than a quarter of a mile down the road, another vendor awaits.    Still, the Kyrgyz endure, making light of their uncertain lives, capitalizing on what the Soviets left behind, even if it’s for entertainment. There’s a great photo of boys on Lake Issyk kul, the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea, frolicking on an old Soviet military barge. Industrial in the extreme, abandoned, and too big to sell for scrap, the barge none-the-less serves as a springboard for fun. Typically barges and boats on Lake Issyk kul were fabricated in Russia then hauled thousands of miles via truck in parts and assembled by the lake.     Then there’s the horses.     A Kyrgyz nomad measures his wealth in the number of horses in his herd. Horses are everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, used in everyday transportation and beasts of burden.  When off duty, they’re picketed or hobbled with frayed rope and left to fend for themselves. In the mountain meadows, they run in large herds, seemingly untended, but someone’s watching them, often young children no older than five. These young herdsmen sometimes ride bareback, guiding their skinny geldings with stitched-together bridles and reins.     Outside a congregation of herder’s yurts, one can spot two picket lines, one for mares, the other for twitching colts. The Kyrgyz keep the horses separate because they’re milking the mares to make kumis, a pleasantly bitter, smoky, fermented brew beloved by just about everyone, it seems.      Beyond offering an example of a country that struggles for its daily bread, Kyrgyzstan abounds in alpine landscapes of heart-halting beauty. It’s easy to snap a passable photo of snowcapped mountain. It’s another thing to frame the image so it practically shimmies with contrast, playing a powder-puff blue sky against the purple and shadowy white of the snowline then coaxing the viewer’s eye down rippling, corrugated dry ridges to the bottom of the drainage. Even while employing his eye for symmetry and grandeur, Adam’s landscapes often include a glimpse the human presence: a footpath, road, or alpine meadow overgrazed to the point that it would leave the most hardened Nevada sheepman gasping for air.     In the end, Adam’s photos testify to Kyrgyzstan’s grand irony: a land endowed with ample water (40,000 rivers and steams, 6,500 glaciers) and fertile valleys but wounded by corruption and a screwy colonial legacy.  These photos document that the Kyrgyz forge on, making a living anyway they can, yet ever eager to share their tea, bread, and salt with a stranger.

Text by Samuel Western, Sheridan, WY