I tried to mentally block out the cold, but the physical nearly always takes over. I would be sat on a horse for hours - you don’t move, your feet just dangle.
Winters in Kyrgyzstan are harsh. It can creep down to -35°C at night, and the environment came as something of a shock to Frederik Buyckx during his first trip. “I went in November. It was cold, but not snowing for the first few weeks, then towards the end, the snow started falling and the temperature dropped, and yet we would still head out in to the mountains.”
While in Kyrgyzstan, Frederik was based in a village near At-Bashy, which literally translates to ‘Horse Head’, giving him the name of his latest project. It was a project that Frederik was driven to do.
“For me it’s just a personal project to find something that I am missing here in Belgium,” he explains, “vast landscapes and nature and everything. It’s a search for something that I would like to experience and I wanted to investigate how these nomadic people live together and against the forces of nature, particularly in winter when it’s such a harsh environment.”
Frederik’s project documents the lives of the semi-nomadic shepherds who, once a year, migrate with their animals from the winter pastures in the mountains to the much warmer summer plains, where they live in yurts. The trek is over 100km which means they are travelling for a number of days. It’s a way of life that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years; some might expect that this kind of culture is slowly dying, but this is actually far from the truth.
“For me,” says Frederik, “this project isn’t about creating history at all. I don’t get the feeling that this nomadic way of life is going to disappear any time soon. The two guys who helped guide me are twenty-five years old and they’re talking about building their own farms in the mountains.”
All of the images from the project are taken in black and white, which Frederik chose to help emphasise the harshness of the landscape, but, according to Frederik, “it also helps you to go more to the core of what you are shooting when you aren’t distracted by the colours of nature.”
I shoot in black and white through the viewfinder, but when you upload the raw images to your computer you see them in colour, which always confuses me at first,” he laughs. “Before I even shoot the image though I imagine it in black and white, and I think my memories of the landscape are often now in black and white too.
With so much time spent on horseback and on the move it was important for Fredrik to travel with as little kit as possible. In fact, he only took two cameras and two lenses - a pair of Sony α7R III cameras with a 28mm f/2 lens on one, and a 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens on the other. “I actually used one camera the majority of the time,” he tells us, “and only used the camera with the 28mm f/2 lens for shooting inside. It would be impossible to move one camera from hot to cold as it could take a few hours for the camera to acclimatise and avoid condensation.”
Frederik also had practical reasons for using two different lenses on his cameras. “I decided to use the 28mm focal length for the camera I used inside as I like having a small, discreet setup,” he tells us, “and I also used it on Silent Shutter mode so I wouldn’t disturb the family in their environment.”
For shooting outside the 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens offered some variety in focal lengths, but without needing to carry around a variety of lenses. “I was a riding a horse, whilst wearing two, or even three, pairs of gloves,” Frederik laughs, “and I had reigns in one hand and a camera in the other so it really wasn’t possible to change lenses!
Another thing that helped Frederik in the extreme conditions was the continuous autofocus function of the α7R III. “It was the first time I used it properly, ” he says, “I was photographing moving people and horses, from a horse which was often also moving, so the continuous autofocus really helped me get everything in focus.”
Aside from his kit helping him to capture images in such challenging conditions, was there anything else that Frederik found helped him to tell stories through his images? “Definitely getting to know my subjects! As I was there so frequently over the space of three years,” he explains, “I was able to befriend them, and we actually formed a strong bond. They are a very open people, despite the fact that we can’t really communicate - they speak no English and I don’t speak their language, but they made it easy for me to get involved, welcoming me in to their home.”
"Photography helps me to communicate, to investigate and to better understand the world around me. My camera gives me a reason to always plunge into a new adventure."