John Feely’s The Outsider is a record of the artist’s time spent in Western Mongolia. A place chosen for its remoteness, vast size and traditional culture, Feely selected a town, and with little plan or particular agenda, made travel arrangements. Without a language in common, relationships were forged silently, the expansive drama of the Mongolian landscape serving as a backdrop for the minutiae and tenderness of human relationships.
The resulting project is sprawling and rich. Its reference to painting is subtly rewarding, applied with a deft touch: a boy ensconced in blankets reminiscent of Klimt’s fabrics, a seated man’s silhouette recalling Whistler’s mother. This influence bolsters the project’s aims of bridging the gap between tradition and modernity: a photographer finds himself in a highly traditional, back-to-nature culture, yet photographs using digital technology. His currency is pixels, and yet the work is drenched in the memory of old masters and oils.
Though the project is titled The Outsider – a title with plural meaning, at once referring to the town he lived in, its people, and likely the artist himself – the overwhelming sense is one of inclusivity, of the strength of bonds made in a hostile environment where common links are far from immediate. The love is harder won. What Feely describes as a “fresh internal experience of life” in a totally unknown environment facilitated work that is brave and sun-bleached, transporting and profound.
What do you shoot on (camera, lens, film if used, etc) and why?
“I try to use one camera and two lenses while travelling. The more gear I have the more my focus is on what is behind the camera or the camera itself. Everything I am interested in is happening beyond my camera so I keep it as simple as possible. I use digital cameras and manual lenses, I find that this also allows me to pay attention and connect with what is happening in front of me.”
The colours and tones in the project are so sensitive – did you approach the project with any visual cues or inspiration or did it arise naturally from your environment?
“I have always been interested in colour, for me it is like poetry or music – incredibly fluid, symbolic and non-literal, so it is an important element for me to work with. Colour seems to speak to people in a way that they cannot explain, which is such a powerful way to communicate or offer something new. So I suppose it is not surprising that this body of work is quite colourful. Mongolia is not particularly colourful as a landscape, but culturally their use of colour is exceptional and for me, very exciting to witness.”
Who or what inspired The Outsider?
“Initially I needed to get away and learn from a place and people that was both spacious and traditional. Things were not going so well for me in my ‘normal’ life, I wanted to experience and learn from a culture that perhaps had traditions and wisdom that mine had lost. I felt that there were valuable things I could learn personally from getting outside my comfort zone. Those parameters guided where I chose to go – Western Mongolia, and how – I essentially found what looked like the most remote town in Mongolia and bought a ticket there. I wanted an uninsulated and insured experience, to get outside the way of thinking that involves controlling, expecting and wanting. There is so much to explore beyond my own hopes, dreams, routines, expectations and everything I know. I guess I was after a new way of experiencing the world.
I’m also very thankful for what it allowed photographically. I feel like my need to learn something different ensured that I was there to learn from people. I was vulnerable and not in control. In a situation like this very strong bonds can form between people. I lived in a way that was very stripped back so I was reliant on the traditions, way of life and generosity of the people I stayed with. It’s easy to see how all of these things were once designed to allow people to survive and connect with what sustains life.
Because of all of this, I was never there to ‘document’ anything from a ‘western perspective’, I was always try to get away from that, there is a shared experience in the middle that is far more profound. We live in an age where just about anyone can document their own lives. A western man ‘capturing photographs’ and bringing them back to ‘civilisation’ does not translate well in today’s global culture and is not something I could bring myself to do. There needs to be another reason to be there.
I am heading back to Mongolia at the end of the month for the rest of the year. I want to look at the relationship between progress and tradition, what is lost and gained. Again this is for personal reasons, understanding things in my life, learning form others. Mongolia is the perfect metonym for this.”
I notice you often shoot through windows or frames – is this purely an aesthetic choice or does it have a deeper, more metaphorical intention?
“It was not something I intended to do, but I believe in retrospect I believe there is a reason. As an example, creating a photograph of an eagle is interesting but it’s not the type of photograph I am interested in creating. Creating a photograph of an eagle through the back window of a home, chained up in the ‘backyard’ is far more interesting to me. It reveals more about the context of the eagle, how the people that live here might view the role of the eagle differently than I do, it makes parts of the shot familiar (and animal tied up in a backyard) and others not, which creates a great contrast for me in the photograph. It also allows me to consider the ideas and emotions us humans seem to project onto what animals experience. Allowing this little bit of extra context was very useful for this project.”
What do you hope to achieve with The Outsider?
“I know that The Outsider will most likely be swallowed up and become part of a bigger project as I extend my time in Mongolia. There is definitely more to the project and I can go deeper with what interests me here.”
Do you feel your time in Mongolia changed you and your approach to life back home?
“Absolutely. Even when the content of my life is the same as it has always been I feel that my approach and way of seeing has been changed permanently. As mentioned I am very grateful for this and wish I could embody it more.”
All photos (C) John Feely.