The first few days were in Sagog, I saw a sight that captivated me. An elderly Kazakh woman leaning against a motorcycle waiting to take a ride into the village at sunset. Her face was deeply etched with the story of a hard life lived, and I yearned to photograph her. I asked Lena, our Source of Steppe Nomads NGO founder and interpreter if I could get her permission to photograph her and she checked with her. She came back a few minutes later and said that, yes, she would be delighted to have her photo taken! Her name was Gamila, and the 88-year-old woman was the mother of our ger camp host, Shala. Unfortunately, the sun had gone down too low a good photo, so I planned to try to do it the next day.
But fate would stretch that three more weeks.
The weather was rainy the next day so it wouldn’t work for the look I wanted, and the next day we would be taking our group to the Tavan Bogd Massif mountain range for our remote camping trip for a week. When we came back, it was nighttime and we would be flying back to Ulaanbaatar in the wee hours of the morning, leaving Sagog.
When we came back a week and a half later with a new group and while we were unloading our vehicles, There Gamila was, leaning against her motorcycle again, dressed in her traditional Kazakh dress, the sun lowering fast. Our new translator, Yera, came up to me and said she was waiting for me to photograph her, and that she had waited everyday since we left! I dropped my gear and unloaded my cameras photographing her as the sun was on the edge of setting.
She was wonderful. Her eyes, face, everything was a story, I wanted to know so much about her. Her family then joined in and we took some more together with them, including our adopted goat Broat! Ekaw and Yera jumped in as well as some of our new students. I downloaded the photos and worked up some on the computer and brought it over to the family and showed them the photos, Gamila beamed at her photo and was happy. So was I.
We left a few days later to Tavan Bogd and then back to Ulaanbaatar. We crossed paths with our other Rustic Pathways group doing the reverse of our itinerary as they were headed to Sagog. I was excited to tell Tony that I had gotten some great images of Gamila I would have to show him when we joined up the groups again in UB.
When we did meet back up, he had some sad news for me.
A day after their group arrived, Gamila died.
She had apparently started a steep decline after we were in Tavan Bogd and passed in her sleep. The other group was on hand to see the surrounding villages converge on our ger camp and made a big event of her funeral. Hundreds arrived to mourn her passing.
Gamila had 11 children and outlived four of them. She and her husband, who served as a mayor, herded animals and she worked hard milking them. In 2000, she lost her husband and most of their livestock, and had an extremely hard go of it from that point on. While some of her children fared reasonably well for the challenging conditions in western Mongolia, some struggle to hang on.
Until I photographed her, Gamila had never seen a color photo of herself.
As I reflect back, it was so impactful to me that she waited all those long weeks, and dressed for the ready everyday waiting for me to come back to photograph her. Did she know the end was near? Hid her illness from her family? Did she channel her will to stay going for just long enough to see herself as others could see her, and have that small keepsake for her family to remember her by? I will never know, but I really can’t put into words how privileged I feel to have met her, and gave her something that she cherished seeing at the end.
When I got back to the US, and back to the internet, I emailed the images to Lena so she could print out copies for Shara and her family to have. I can only imagine now that sitting inside their ger, probably above where she sat nightly with her family, is a color photo of Gamila.