Photo Essays

Dioramas Reveal the Desertification of Mongolia

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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology (All images courtesy of Daesung Lee)

Wedged between Russia and China, the nation of Mongolia has long been home to one of the world’s largest nomadic populations, with more than a third of its population pursuing their livelihood on the vast Mongolian-Manchurian steppe. But in recent years, the grassland has been drying up. According to a 2008 government survey, more than 1,200 rivers, 2,600 lakes, and 93,700 springs have disappeared, partly thanks to industrial mining.

Korean photographer Daesung Lee’s remarkable series Futuristic Archaeology explores what the desertification of their home means for Mongolian nomads through a series of fantastically staged images. They feature landscapes-within-landscapes — barren, desert environments inlaid with decidedly greener ones. These incredible scenes aren’t digitally orchestrated: Lee actually printed out billboard-sized photographs and strung them up on site, using former nomads as models. Inside the smaller images, people ride horses, herd goats, and go about their lives fenced in by red rope barriers.

The photographer told Hyperallergic that his approach was inspired by the lifeless anthropological dioramas you often see in natural history museums. He has often been struck by the paradox that the lost cultures they display are “preserved dead like fossils” by the very governments that destroyed them. Though he has previously documented climate change through his work as a photojournalist, he said that this time he wanted to actually deliver a message instead of simply describing the issue. And here, that message is strikingly clear: if we don’t start acting like climate change matters, Mongolia’s nomadic culture might one day end up behind glass.

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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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An image from Daesung Lee’s series Futuristic Archaeology
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