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Cambridge-based photographer Jules Klass’s work currently on display at Balzano’s on Cherry Hinton Road

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A Western Mongolian landscape, photo by Jules Klass
A Western Mongolian landscape, photo by Jules Klass

When South African-born Jules Klass set off from Cambridge for western Mongolia, the self-taught photographer knew it was going to be a challenge (the nomadic tribe she was photographing have no permanent address) – as well as an experience of a lifetime.

Photographer Jules Klass, photo by Ethan Cole
Photographer Jules Klass, photo by Ethan Cole

Jules, who has been living in Cambridge for six years, was not to be put off in her pursuit of photographing the Kazakh eagle hunters – a nomadic tribe who train eagles to help their own survival.

The two-week trip was a gruelling expedition, but the results – which form an exhibition running at Balzano’s on Cherry Hinton Road until January 4 – were well worth it.

“They live in one of the most unpopulated parts of Mongolia,” Jules told the Cambridge Independent. “It’s right on the border of Russia and China and it’s a very wild place. In terms of how you get there, there’s no roads, no medical back-up, but it’s a really exciting place to travel.”

The area is remote, the nomads are always on the move and the region is undeveloped – finding the community was a cat and mouse game on a grand scale.

Kazakh eagle hunter on horseback, photo by Jules Klass
Kazakh eagle hunter on horseback, photo by Jules Klass

“They migrate with their family units and animals six times a year,” continued Jules. “They are extraordinary in that they sustain this wonderful community lifestyle in minus 40 degrees. Finding them is quite interesting too because they don’t have addresses.

“You’re crossing huge rivers and snowy landscapes – we were days behind at the beginning of the trip because of enormous amounts of rain – it can get down to minus 18 degrees in the summer so it was hard getting around. The daily challenge of getting to where we were going was quite something.”

The Kazakh community is famed for its use of eagles, training them to hunt.

“They find these eagles when they’re six weeks old on the cliff faces and train them to hunt wolves and foxes for the heavy coats and clothing that they need to wear in the winter months,” said Jules. “Then they release the birds when they’re six years old so that the breeding programme can continue.

“So without much education on conservation, they seem to have an instinctive understanding of what’s needed, which is absolutely wonderful.

“They’ve also got an enormous amount of respect for the landscape and what they’re doing, and are circumspect about losing their livestock to bears. They really don’t have very much education at all – no radios, no televisions, but a real respect for the space that they live in.”

The tribes start hunting in the winter, which begins around September (summer time doesn’t last very long in this part of the world), but conduct regular training sessions throughout the warmer months.

“The guys go up into the mountains on horseback, carrying the eagles on one arm,” explained Jules. “Obviously it not being winter, we didn’t see any of the kills or the catches because that kind of wildlife isn’t around at that time of year. But we went out with them on horseback into the mountains and watched the eagles flying.

“The eagles are very, very well trained. They’re enormous birds and it’s quite a feat to carry an eagle on a horse and ride successfully through the mountains.”

The tradition has lasted for centuries – from before Mongol times – and curiously only female eagles are captured because they are bigger and are the more successful hunters.

“The guys on the horses generally go to a high point on the mountain and watch where the eagle takes down the prey – and then they go down on horseback to try to help the eagle retrieve it. It’s a really interesting relationship that they have.”

The eagles are revered and respected by the Kazakh people.

“If ever a bird is killed in the process of hunting, they dry the bird’s skin with the feathers on and display it on the wall in the place of honour.”

The nomadic life is not all about the eagles,

“The tribes have a lot of livestock. They have camels for transporting heavy goods from one camp to another. They have yaks for the same purpose, but they also drink the yaks’ milk, and they have lots of horses – for transport and there’s a real craze for horseracing. Then they keep goats and sheep for meat.

“In the entire period I was there, I didn’t see or eat a single piece of fruit or vegetable at all. There’s no vegetation, apart from very small wild onion which is like spring onion. Anyone who says that you need five-a-day clearly hasn’t seen the robust health of these people!”

Jules, an experienced globetrotter, was able to go on this trip of a lifetime courtesy of another photographer.

“I did a lot of expeditions when I was younger and really missed it when I started with family and children,” she said. “I had yearned to return to it for a long time and saw a photographer whom I’ve admired for a long time, Timothy Allen, who did the BBC Human Planet series. He was going out to Mongolia and said he was going to take a few people with him, so I contacted him straight away.

“He understands that space – you can’t go if you don’t have an expedition crew organised. The chance to travel alongside him was what drew me to it.”

Jules added: “One thing that will stay with me forever is the hospitality of the people because as you arrive somewhere, the people, who don’t know you’re coming, give you this extraordinary welcome. We were always brought into family meals and homes and I stayed with them for several days.

“That was part of the beauty of it. You’re not just there to take photographs, you’re there to understand who you’re visiting. Arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend. I do events on the commercial side of photography, but my personal projects are to do with finding people around the world who I suppose live on the outside of what we understand to be modern society.

“That’s what I’ll be doing a lot more of in the next year – I’m going out to Ethiopia and Namibia next, so I’ve got quite a lot planned.”



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