Women of the High Plateau: An Interview with Eleanor Moseman

Eleanor Moseman is a photographer who works on women’s issues among ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans living in Western China. Her photographs relay the everyday struggles and triumphs of women in places that few journalists are able to access. Her portraits evoke stories of perseverance, courage, power and loss. Her work has appeared in PBS Newshour, The Atlantic, Sidetracked, and Transgressor, and she joins GlacierHub today from the Tibetan Plateau.

Steam rises to the opening in a nomad’s tent, as she boils water for drinking, cooking, and washing (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

GlacierHub: What role does environmental change play in your work on the Tibetan Plateau? What have you noticed on the ground? 

Eleanor Moseman: Aside from exploring communities and learning about local cultures, my travel throughout China has opened my eyes to environmental issues. Besides cycling or trekking to remote areas to spend time in the shadows of some of the most beautiful mountain ranges, I take notes of how the environment is rapidly changing.

What instigated my work was a two year bicycle tour around China and Central Asia. As I began to get further from the East and closer to the great Gobi, water became something very important to my life and sustenance.

A Bangladeshi woman stacks wet bricks to set before firing in the massive kiln (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

Along the Grand Canal and into the Gobi, I saw water turn from a method of travel to something nearly non-existent. As a self-supported traveler scanning the landscape continually for natural resources, you begin to take notice of environmental issues. From the Gobi, the land of sand and wind farms, I would climb up to the Tibetan plateau where I would see my very first glaciers: the Chola Range, Yading, Amnyemachen, to name a few.

Since 2011, I have continued my travels in Western China and watched how one of the most beautiful regions of Asia is changing. What I’m noticing is a higher water level of glacier melt during the summers. Also, I’m witnessing small landslides along river banks and roads. Could the landslides be contributed to road construction or the river mining? 

This summer, I really worked to get off the main roads and was appalled at the amount of river beds being destroyed by mining. I have also been to neighboring Tajikistan, where I had a battle with a river that nearly took my life. All travelers had been warned that summer that rivers were higher than usual. By bike or foot, I avoid glacier areas during the summer because of the rapid flowing rivers.

Shabana, at the age of 18 or 19, shows a picture of her husband, Forid. Shabana and Forid’s marriage was arranged and he lives a few hours away from Dhaka with his family.(Source: Eleanor Moseman).

But the worst thing I’m watching develop is the amount of trash being left behind by the yak herders (nomads), migrant workers, and tourists. We have regions that used to be untouched, with a variety of wild animals, and all of this is disappearing, replaced with chunks of white styrofoam flowing down the emerald green rivers. Tree branches are now decorated with Red Bull cans; an 800-year-old temple is now littered with instant noodle containers and plastic bottles.

The rapidly growing infrastructure and the growing middle class of China, in my opinion, is opening the doors to environmental disaster in this area. People can now afford to travel, on new roads that will lead them to remote and absolute magnificent views of mountains, plateaus, and crystal green Alpine lakes. Northern Tibet is home to the Chang Thang region, which is home to the disappearing chiru. It’s one of the last untouched regions of the world, with countless lakes and mountains. A super highway is now being built that will ultimately connect Urumqi to Lhasa. These two provinces are rich in natural resources and this road will boost the economy while allowing tourism to grow.

GH: Please describe your current project.

A man recites Tibetan prayers near a holy mountain in Tibet. (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

EM: This year I set out forth with some ideas, but as usual, things changed during research and travel. One of the keys to survival in these regions is being very flexible and patient. Politics or weather are usually my main causes of rerouting but I persevere and look for the next best option. Life moves slow in these areas, so there’s also a lot of watching and waiting. Working and traveling alone with no fixers or translators, I’m often influenced by the people I meet as to what to pursue. I invest a lot of time just talking and revisiting families, creating a level of intimacy and comfort between us which allows for more candid photographs and a deeper understanding of their story.

Earlier this year, I spent time in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, just over the border from Myanmar. In these refugee camps, I focused on the faces and stories of the brave and heroic women where I was able. I collected stories that can help us connect with these women, such as their pleasant childhood memories or hopes for their children. These women are victims of heinous crimes, things we can’t even possibly relate to, but my hope is to give them a power to reach us with simple, humanistic commonality.

Teenage girls flip through instant messages and photos on a mobile phone. (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

With the echoes of genocide, I moved onto China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, one of my favorite places in the world. I had intended to focus on Uyghur family dynamics among the working women that work in the office, school or among the crops with their husbands. I have found women choosing to work being unique compared to the neighboring countries of Central Asia. Upon my return this summer, what I was exposed to is women losing their husbands, sons, and friends to strictly enforced regulations, such as prohibited mosque visits for prayer or questionable material on their phones.

I’m currently in Amdo Tibet, where I’ve spent the last two months between Kham and Amdo. I split my time between trekking and visiting with local families, again focusing on the lives of women. I’ve always been in awe of the hard-working Tibetan women, like nothing I’ve ever seen. They remain in good spirits with their laughter and songs echoing along the plateau and mountains.

An elderly, and senile, woman sits and prays in the warm afternoon sun. (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

My other goal here is to show Tibetans as the people they are: exceptionally hard-working, loving and very involved in their family and community. The infrastructure developing in remote regions has allowed them to modernize at a very quick rate, and I wonder what effect this will have on their culture.

GH: What informs your approach to visual representation? How do you choose what to portray?

EM: What has helped is talking with locals and listening to their stories. My goal is to disappear behind my camera, which is a bit ironic considering how involved I am within their lives. There are things I do avoid, such as exoticism and highlighting someone’s misery or victimhood. Even if the story is one of pain, I want them to portray their strength even if it’s for 1/100 of a second in front of my lens.

GH: What brought you to photography? Is there a type of project that most appeals to you?

EM: After landing in China ten years ago with absolute ignorance, I began trying a route of photojournalism. Even though I studied photography in college and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, I still consider myself self-taught. The projects that appeal to me the most are those in which I am allowed access into the intimate lives of others, where I disappear as the foreign photographer and watch things play out before me. Women’s, cultural and environmental issues are the things I am passionate about, so I seek out those stories.

Sisters dress in the early morning light, as they prepare a trip to the closest town for supplies. (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

GH: How does having a camera change the nature of your relationship to the subjects in your photographs?

EM: The majority of the time it doesn’t change much because I generally don’t introduce the camera until I feel we are all comfortable. I’ll keep my camera in the bag or even leave it at my guesthouse so as not have the guilt for not taking photographs and to encourage trust between us. I generally can get an idea how people will react around a camera pretty quickly. If there seems to be a lack of comfort or possibly a dangerous situation, I won’t reveal the camera and move on.

GH: What are the advantages or disadvantages to being a female photographer working in some of the more remote regions you travel to?

Shabana works in a small factory that manufactures wigs out of human hair (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

EM: It’s really hard to say there are disadvantages; all the things I’ve faced have just made me wiser and stronger. I’m given access that perhaps wouldn’t be granted to men. Just tonight, I had a five-year-old boy cuddle up with me on the couch, and the family thought it was adorable. I’m invited into homes and welcomed to stay as long as I would like. I focus on women’s issues and family life so it’s important to be given complete access to their lives. A man would never be able to have a slumber party with a group of Uyghur women.

Often, I get access into men’s lives as well. Perhaps not at the same depth as a male photographer, but often young men are very willing to help and see nothing wrong with letting a foreigner see things that are off limits to women of their own culture.

A mother gently tips a cup of hot yak milk into her son’s mouth (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

As for the unfortunate moments when I feel threatened or touched inappropriately, I actually take pity on these men. They have been exposed to Western media with really no idea what a western woman is like. For instance, I just explained to a man that it’s not commonplace for a woman to have a boyfriend even if she’s married. I often lie about marital status if it’s a one-on-one situation. It often does not deter advances even by telling them I have a husband at home…

Tibetans and Han have a relaxing dinner in the mountains after a long day of working on a dangerous mountain road (Source: Eleanor Moseman).

I’m not going to let gender be the thing that holds me back from work, travel and personal dreams. I’ve met too many women with no choice to walk away, who can’t just put on their backpack, say a few ugly words, and walk off to safety. There are no disadvantages, just different challenges, and I’m ready to face them all, personally and professionally.

 

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