This time last year, I was in a sewer underneath the streets on the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Baatar taking this picture. I was there to do a story on the homeless communities of the Mongolian capital who live underneath the streets. At that point last year, the economic crisis was in full swing and was having knock-on effects on this community, already living perilously close to the line which divides survival and death.
I don’t know if this image (and the story) have had any affect at all. I self-assigned this story to myself and certainly have made no money from it. The problem is, photographing homeless people is a bit of a photojournalistic cliche and many people switch off when you say you have photographed the homeless. The tragic lives of the homeless in Mongolia is definately a story which needs to be heard. What can I do? What can we do? Well, visit websites such as this one and this one and help spread the word. You never know who may hear.
One of the outlets that published the work was the Digital Journalist. Scroll down to read my article that I wrote for them about my trip and view a few more images.
OUT IN THE COLD:
HOMELESS IN ULAAN BAATAR, MONGOLIA.
It was 5 a.m. and the temperature was about – 20C. As I stood shivering in the darkness down a back-alley in the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Baatar, I was starting to believe the claims that this was indeed the coldest capital city in the world. This alleged fact however, wasn’t why I was there. My guide Batszaya turned to me and said, “I don’t think they’re coming”.
We had been waiting in the cold for the past hour for a homeless family who we had met the previous evening and had arranged to meet at 4 a.m. near their home. It appeared however that I had been stood-up.
Currently, 36% of Mongolians live below the poverty line, lacking the ability to buy basic food and goods needed in order to survive on a day-today basis. This figure has barely changed since the fledgling democratic government took power in the early 1990s. As the world experiences the effects of the global financial crisis, small countries such as Mongolia are feeling the effects as much as anybody. The 3 million residents of Mongolia hang on the actions of the great superpowers of Russia and China that sandwich the country to the north and to the south. The country is currently experiencing its highest inflation rate in over a decade, accompanied by rising fuel and food costs. With Russia supplying Mongolia with 95% of its petroleum, a large amount of its electricity and China receiving 70% of the country’s exports, Mongolia’s economy is fraught with vulnerability, dependent on it’s two looming neighbors.
I was in the Mongolian capital, via a ‘short’ 30-hour train journey from Beijing and had only 3 days to find and photograph people who were being affected first-hand by the economic crisis in Asia. This project was self-assigned and I knew I needed a little luck if I was to find people willing to be photographed and get enough images for a short feature.
My first day appeared fruitless however as my guide and I drove around the capital searching for people to photograph. Our first attempts at asking people to be photographed were soundly rejected and it wasn’t looking good. That evening however we met Battsetseg, 36, a friendly woman who has been living on the streets for over 10 years after running out of money during the country’s worst economic recession in the 1990’s. She, like many others, has been living in an underground sewer with her family, in a room that’s floor was lined with hot-water pipes that they would lay on to keep them warm. That evening my guide and I found ourselves lowering each other through a manhole, down into the pitch black and into Battsetseg’s home. By flashlight we talked about the difficulties her and her family are now facing because of rising food prices.
“I was 26 years old when I began living on the street. I came to Ulaan Baatar as I thought life would be better in the city. At the beginning, it was better, but now it’s getting worse and worse. It’s very difficult for poorer people. Today for example, I got up at 3 to look around the garbage for bottles. I found enough to buy a loaf of bread for my children. I then go home, sleep a little and then walk around again. I worry about this evening’s food.”
That evening we agreed to meet at 4 a.m. the following morning so I could photograph her and her family through a normal day. So, at 5 a.m. the next morning I found myself having been waiting for an hour with no sign of Battsetseg. The lives of people living on the streets in Ullan Baator is fraught with danger and unpredictability. Just a month ago, Battsetseg told us how, in the middle of the night, a gang of homeless people descended into her family’s underground home and stole their bedding, food and money. In the process they slashed the neck of her husband with a knife, as he tried to stop the thieves robbing his family.
So, having given up for the night, my guide and I returned to the streets the following day. This time however we didn’t find anybody ourselves, instead we were found. Late in the afternoon an old man and a young child approached our parked car as we waited for Battsetseg from the previous day. They introduced themselves as Battur (55) and his grandson Huyga (6). They had heard through other homeless people that there was a foreign photographer in the area and they had come to find me as they wanted someone to hear their story.
They led me and my guide through some of the alleyways that divide the communist-era apartment buildings which dominate Ulaan Battar, until we finally arrived at their home, an abandoned metal garage, big enough to house an average sized car.
“We have been living on the streets for 10 years and in this garage for 1 year”, said Battur, the grandfather of the family who, in his youth, studied Mongolian Language and Literature at one of the capital’s Universities. Divorcing from his wife in the 90’s turned him to drink and hence onto the street. He introduced me to his son, Otguntugs (28) and his son’s wife, Ounsuren (36). Having heard of my presence in the community, they asked me to spend the following day with them in order to show people how they live and to tell people of the difficulties of their lives and the discrimination they face.
So, the next morning at around 6 a.m., I accompanied the family as they crept out of their garage-home. Behind them they left 6-year year old Huyga, sleeping soundly hidden beneath blankets, alone in the darkness. Each morning, the family head onto the streets to search for bottles, both plastic and glass, so that they can sell them to recycling centers. A morning’s work can yield some 100 bottles, for which they can get some 1000 Mongolian Tugrik, barely US$1. With this money and a little left over from the previous day, they head to the local food market where they buy, not food, but cheap Russian vodka which they proceed to drink in quantity in order to stave off the biting cold of the Mongolian winter morning. And so their day continues in a cycle of collecting bottles, drinking vodka, finding any food they can and just making it through the day.
For the family of three-generations, the story is similar and echoes many of the lives and subsequent problems surrounding being homeless in Mongolia. Widespread unemployment has caused many social problems such as depression, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and crime. Facing discrimination from many areas of society, Otguntugs, the father, told me of having lost the family’s official documents some years ago, and the problems it has created. “In the hospitals, nobody will help us because people believe we are dirty. We have no insurance or documents, so are refused treatment.”
For the country’s 1 million people who live below the poverty line, the world’s reaction the global financial crisis in the coming months and years will have huge direct significance on their lives and their basic ability to survive.
And so the lives of Ulaan Baatar’s homeless residents continue to hang perilously in the balance, hinging on the actions of others, both abroad and at home. Tomorrow morning however, Ulaan Baatar’s homeless will rise again into dark, sub-zero conditions and begin their search for bottles once again, trying to make it through one more day.