Home on the Steppe

The shifting ways of life in Mongolia

Töv Province, August 2011. CHIARA GOIA
01 August, 2014

IN THE FIRST FOUR DAYS OF MARCH EVERY YEAR, the trails leading to Lake Khövsgöl in the remote northern reaches of Mongolia witness a flurry of human activity. Hundreds of people arrive for the local Ice Festival, which has been held anually for the last 15 years. Lake Khövsgöl lies about 650 kilometres west of Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. Nighttime temperatures in March drop below minus-twenty degrees Celsius, and the lake freezes over. During the day, revellers enjoy tug-o-war matches, horse-drawn sleigh rides and other diversions on the ice.

The photographer Chiara Goia first visited Mongolia in the summer of 2008. She said she has “always felt a strong draw” to the country, and was “attracted by the nomadic life.” The families she stayed with that summer took her to the lake, and shared stories about the festival. She vowed to visit it again in winter, and a few years later she did. On the way, “I found kilometres of road that were not there in 2008,” she said.

Mongolia has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, thanks mainly to a rapidly expanding mining industry. Young people are joining mining camps and giving up old occupations such as herding, and cities are encroaching upon the steppe. Goia’s photographs document this shift, and also capture enduring images of traditional life. She called her experiences in the country “incredible—beautiful and tough at the same time.”

Goia was born in Turin, Italy, in 1982. When she was only ten years old, she began taking photographs with a camera her mother bought her. She decided to pursue her hobby more seriously while studying English in Australia in her early twenties. She returned to Italy, and took photography courses while studying political science at the University of Milan. In 2006, she moved to New York to study at the International Center of Photography. “I love the fact that photography forces you to slow down and observe, the fact that it allows you to make art out of something that already exists,” she said. “I also use it as a tool that helps me find order in disorder, to make things clearer, to find beauty in a mess.”

The presence of the steppe—its power and desolation—permeates much of Goia’s work. She recalled often finding herself “in the middle of nowhere … no trees, or very few, no shelters.” “You have to kind of give up your resistance, which keeps building out of fear,” she said. “You really understand how small you are in front of the force of nature.” Her images often capture their subjects in unguarded, intimate moments. Goia said she tries “to disappear, to make my presence comfortable enough for the people not to feel awkward. But there are some cases where I have to act fast. And I don’t even ask for permission. I ask later, and hope the people are fine with that.”

Chiara Goia is a documentary and fine-art photographer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, GEO, and numerous other publications.