Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Wired for Protest

Shaman, Reading From Phone
A chance trip to Sukhbaatar Square this morning, for what I thought was one photograph needed for another notebook. Instead, I came upon a protest against mining gold on a mountain considered to be sacred in Mongolia. Initially I thought that this was an environmental protest, but as the morning unfolded, I became less certain about what I was seeing—about any part of what I was seeing.

When I arrived things were just getting under way. Not in a particularly organized manner, Mongolians dressed in traditional clothing were talking to cameramen and tv news anchors. Furled banners lay in a stack, with a few people holding the flags that first caught my attention. A Mongolian woman who was guiding a journalist from Beijing briefly explained the issues to me, but after that I was on my own to make sense of what was happening. Just as my attention was starting to wander and I was thinking to myself, "Some protest!" things began to happen. If you are patient, Mongolia never disappoints.

Two shamans arrived, and the crowd re-arranged itself to surround them. The shamans stood on felt mats, which I imagined were to help keep their feet warm. (I also imagined that they would be moving around a lot more, but that's why they had felt mats. This morning it is –25°C, or –13°F.) Then not much happened, though several people talked using a microphone. While they were talking, the shamans checked their messages, hiding their phones behind their skin-covered drums. Although this was clearly meant to be a photo-op for the press and television reporters who attended the protest, the shamans stood with their backs to the sun, leaving the reporters with no hope of decent images as they pointed their cameras at faces shrouded by deep shadows, and a background of intense sunlit haze. I photographed their backs.

Twenty minutes went by, and then, unannounced, a group of about twenty other shamans arrived. The crowd was reconfigured, and the speeches began in ernest, one shaman at a time stepping up to a woman holding a wireless microphone to have his or her say. Some spoke unassisted, but others were passed a mobile phone by the woman with the microphone, from which they could read, also while holding it in their hand and hiding it behind their drum. As always, some seemed better at eliciting response from the crowd, which chanted "Uulaa, Uulaa!" from time to time, a variation of a word that means mountain, but also drinking. Traditionally dressed organizers kept the crowd at bay, arranging people in perfect order so that nobody would have their view of the shamans obstructed by the crowd. It was a protest that was created for the widest possible distribution, and there was no room for those who were carried away by the pull of the moment.

An article in the New York Times describes the alliance that environmentalists have made with Native Americans, who, for very different motivations are interested in very similar ends. Substitute Native Americans for Native Mongolians and you have an equation that looks completely different here than it does in the United States. Native Mongolians comprise all but one other face that can be seen in this crowd. They are dressed in support of their traditional ways, and when push comes to shove, have resorted to emotional arguments that recall their fellow citizens' belief in an animistic spiritual world. It may be an easier argument to make, given other evidence of environmental stewardship here.

What's also apparent is that those hoping to influence public sentiment have embraced a world of mobile phones, wireless mikes, and performance aimed at drawing sympathy from a very wide audience.

Close Story—Back to Pictures

Wired for Protest

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Waiting for Protesters


Green Jade

Finest Deel

Shaman, Checking Messages

Throwing Milk

Shaman Interview

First Shaman to Speak

A Good Speaker


Shamen, Fox Skin

Traditional, Techno

Two Thirds Drum

Orderly Protest

Alternate Mongolian Flag

Protest Signs

Shamen, Near End of Protest

Shaman, Checking In

Here and Now