Can you imagine Indiana Jones wielding a camera instead of a bullwhip? Photographer, intrepid adventurer, documentary storyteller, Asher Svidensky, travelled to West Mongolia walking in the footsteps of Genghis Khan to capture the all-male preserve of eagle hunting. Or so he thought. What he discovered to his astonishment, was the first female eagle huntress, 13-year-old Ashol Pan.
“Most people love legends and what I try to do with all my photographs is tell a story,” relates the freelance 25-year-old photographer, back in Tel Aviv on a very brief stopover before he is off to India on a shoot. Israeli – born Svidensky, who learned English playing Dungeons & Dragons, was a photographer in the Israeli military. He’s passionate about mixed media – combining documentary video with photography and has made several treks to China and Mongolia and presented his video photo montages at TED Talks.
With vision seven times more acute than the human eye, Golden Eagles are used for catching foxes and marmots. Eagle hunting has been passed down from father to son for centuries with training beginning at age thirteen, a rite of passage. Genghis Khan was thought to have over 1,500 eagles in his aviary and Marco Polo wrote about Kublai Khan going on hunting excursions with his eagles and falcons. The sport was suppressed during the Communist era but has enjoyed a resurgence maintained by Kazakhs around the border of China and Mongolia.
As in many dramatic discoveries, attaining the best results can’t always be planned. In fact, for Svidensky, serendipity and sheer perseverance played the biggest roles.
“The entire project was me falling into one situation after another, Svidensky admits. “My guide and I went from village to village and kept asking families about the eagle hunters until I found Irka Bolen, a 13-year-old boy being trained as an eagle hunter by his father. But then I started thinking – in a country where 70% of its educated population are women, and most of its educational institutes are run by females, is it possible to think that the future of the art of the eagle hunting tradition could also lean on feminine shoulders? ”
That’s when Svidensky discovered Ashol Pan in Han Gohadok, which is south of Ulgii, Mongolia. “It was freezing there but once I was photographing her in the mountains practicing with the Golden Eagle, Akh-Khanat, “White Wing” I just felt like I was in a dream,” he relates.
Svidensky’s dream turned into a reality when his spectacular photographs eventually went viral on Facebook and made the cover of National Geographic Traveler. After seeing his spiritually uplifting photographs, New York-based Otto Bell of Kissaki Films secured rights to shoot a documentary in Mongolia in 2016 entitled, Eagle Huntress based on Ashol Pan and her father.
“It’s a very close relationship between bird and hunter and every family has their own training techniques. They don’t believe in competition in their society, explains Svidensky. “Ashol’s father and teacher is one of the most famous eagle hunters in Mongolia. I was amazed by her comfort and ease as she began handling the huge eagle for the first time in her life. She was fearlessly carrying it on her hand and caressing it somewhat joyfully.”
The eagles are extremely dangerous and by no means a pet. Although they can live up to 30 years, they are traditionally released back into the wild after 8 years.
“An eagle snatched my hat while I was shooting one day – I think she thought it was a fox,“ laughs Svidensky.
Svidensky spent a great deal of time getting to know the families of the eagle hunters and showing them his images. “They are warm and wonderful people and I wanted them to feel like part of the project, he explains. “I asked Ashol’s father ‘how did it feel watching your daughter dressed in Kazakh uniform, on a mountain top, sending the eagle off and calling it back again? ‘”
“ ‘Very good,’ he said.”
“And honestly… would you have considered truly training her? Would she become Mongolia’s first-ever female eagle huntress? ” I expected a straightforward ‘no’ or a joking ‘maybe’, “ but after a short pause he replied: ”
“ ‘Up until two years ago my eldest son was the successor of the eagle hunting tradition in our family. Alas, two years ago he was drafted to the army, and he’s now an officer, so he probably won’t be back with the tradition. It’s been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn’t dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year you will come to the Eagle Festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place.’ ”
TOP PHOTO: Photographer Asher Svidensky travelled to West Mongolia to capture the all-male preserve of eagle hunting. He discovered the first female eagle huntress, 13-year-old Ashol Pan.