Photographing Native Mongolians Who Had Never Seen a Photo of Themselves

Teenage photographers Vanessa Hollander and Wilson Philippe embarked on a ten-day motorcycle trip across Mongolia this past summer on a mission to give instant photo portraits to Native Mongolians who had never seen a photo before. They also made the above video documenting the reactions of a few of their subjects:

each person photographed really prized and protected his or her polaroid (fearing that we wanted to keep it), and barely let us see it when it was developed! the children automatically stored it away once we showed them what was the very first picture of themselves. it was a really great and humbling experience and showed us how much just one photograph can mean to people who have never had one of themselves. although many people claim they want to escape this mess of technology in more delevoped countries, we often tend to take the beauty of some technology, such as photography, for granted. [#]

Unless you’re a photography-hating robot, the video should bring a smile to your face and a fuzzy feeling to your heart.

mongolia! (via Photojojo)

  • Henning Nilsen

    The expression of the first kid when he saw the picture. Priceless!

  • Henning Nilsen

    The expression of the first kid when he saw the picture. Priceless!

  • Raymond Wong


  • Michael H Horwath

    ugh they called it poloroids… its called instant film

  • Rush P.

    Okay, I’m sick with claims like this one. These Mongolians have never seen a photo, but they have seen a Toyota in the background? C’mon, don BS around, this is just neocolonialism. Assuming that if because someone is living in a tent, he must be poor or underprivileged, that just us westerners perspective on everyone else. Same mindset that got almost all the Indians killed, or half of Africa enslaved. These people live normal lives, and yes, they have seen a photo before, I’m 150% sure…

  • Anne

    Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve lived in Mongolia–the lifestyle of the people in the countryside is very rural, but almost everyone visits the cities at some point or another (for supplies, family, etc). Shocked as everyone may be, the people who live that way are not some undiscovered rural culture who don’t know that airplanes exist. When I traveled to the countryside, many families had old photos–relatives from more half a century ago, etc. More valuable than instant film, in my opinion.
    A more correct statement would be, “photographing people who have never witnessed instant film”. But naturally, expressing enthusiasm at being photographed by some traveling hipsters with instant film obviously means they don’t know what a photo is. Maybe some things were lost in translation.

  • Rush_pauly

    My point exactly, Anne, you just said it in much kinder words…

  • Regina

    While these young Mongolian children are probably still enjoying the first printed picture of themselves (TO KEEP), you’re online bashing a website’s wording on a caption. Just please enjoy the video… That being said, amazing video! The kid at the end was so cute :)! 

  • Greekstreek

    Having seen “a photo” and having seen “a photo of ThEMSELVES” are different, and I think a lot of commenters are missing that. I don’t think the claim is that these people don’t know what a photo is or think their soul is being captured on film, they’ve just never had anyone SHOW THEM their own picture before. Seems plausible. Just enjoy it instead of trying to pick it apart.

  • Robbie Khan

    Isn’t it nice that there are people out there waiting for every opportunity to crap on a nice feel good article on the web whenever they can? I suggest getting out there and doing something more productive like putting a smile on someone’s face instead of making the rest of the world think you’re some kind of high horsed douche.

    Nobody is denying these people have never seen a photo but this moment is a unique one, you can see it in their faces and it’s a moment well captured and one well worth sharing, even if the caption title might not be 100% worded correctly.

  • Rush P

    I still, with great certainty, claim that 99% of Mongolian kids HAVE SEEN AND ARE IN POSSESION OF  a photo of themselves. Greekstreek and Regina, I enjoyed the video, I just think the claim is ridiculous, so I’m not bashing this site, nor it’s author M.Z., nor Photojojo where the story came from, quite contrary, I like and follow all three, and will continue to do so.
     I’m, however BASHING the classic perspective of a “civilized” man who assume that a kid smiling at a photo in a “third world” country has seen it for a first time. What would happen if a not-English-speaking Mongolian use a polaroid to snap a photo of an American kid in Central Park? 99% sure that the kid would smile and would like to keep the photo…

  • David B.

    I’d like to know what make/model of camera she’s using.

  • Article19

    dude, you have no idea, nor does “Anne I Lived in Mongolia and Met Every Person Who Lives There” if these people have ever seen a photograph of themselves. You know what dude, I’ve met people in the UK who have never, and I mean never, used the internet.

  • Anne

    The point I was making is that this generates stereotypes and misconceptions; I hope you don’t argue with that. I lived there for ten years, which is probably ten years more than you.

  • Peter P

    The instant film being used for the photos in this video is Fuji Instax Mini film (or Polaroid 300 film, the same thing rebranded). There are several Fuji cameras that use this film, plus Polaroid started selling one of the Fuji cameras rebranded as their own. There’s also Instax Wide film which is larger.

    The Instax film is beautiful, you can see my Instax photos here:

    The children’s reactions in this video are certainly adorable! I’m sure receiving the gift of a photo was a thrilling experience for them. But I think their reaction is more universal than people might realize — I take instant film photos of kids all the time here in the US, and they get just as excited as the kids in the video! 

  • John

    It seems you are hellbent on being right and are not hearing the point.  We are all certain you are correct Anne though assuredly there are people whom have never experienced a person wanting to do something kind for them in this way.  To recognize them…the give value to their lives.

    I lived in Jamaica during the 1990’s and there are numerous people who had never used a phone, had never seen a cellphone and possessed no photographs of themselves.  that does not mean that they do not know what they are, simply that nobody had taken an interest to do it.

    The intellect seeks pure, empirically valid answers.  Try thinking with your heart and let the messy details be part of the answer.  Still quite valid…

  • Erka

    When i lived in the United States between 1998 and 2000, a few Americans had used mobile phone which was very old fashioned cellphones and most people used pagers. So i think also American rural area people are also not used advanced technology this days too. Also try not to be someone who knows everything.

  • Mongol

    Dude don’t be ridiculous

  • A Fan

    Anne… Rush.. a read…. 

    Amazing video. The smiles of the people is worth far more than the intricacies of the claims you made….

    Good job. I’m jealous of your creativity. Liked the super shallow DOF video too.

  • Grayson Hary

    Yeah, thank you for reiterating the photo of THEMSELVES part. Haha, kind of the big emphasis here!

  • Josh Ladella

    Anybody recognize the background track in the video?

  • James Perry

    The background track was a live version of “Janglin'” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros.

  • Mick Johnson

    I was with you until you pulled 150% out of your butt and showed that you dont know anything.  Your likely the kind of person that when given a scale of 1 to 10 you say 11.

  • billy

    This is just misrepresentative at best, of course they’ve all seen photos (and yes, I’ve lived in Mongolia as well and travelled a fair bit across it).

    Even the claim that they’ve never seen printed photos of themselves before – there’s more of a trend of photo printing shops in towns and cities because there’s not much electricity outside of population centres. Almost every ger I went into had photos displayed everywhere! As another commenter said, the suprise of instant film was probably the new thing.

    I actually really like the ‘hipsters take on Mongolia’ journey, really beautiful and creative.

  • Raccatography

    Awwwwwww fuck. Made me tear a bit

  • John

    I quite like this, but there’s some dissonance between what’s trying to be a fairly “low tech” experience (with the instant film and general lack of modern technology in the backgrounds) and the fact that it’s all been recorded on digital camera and then slickly edited with a soundtrack.

  • tashmc

    Wow what a shame so many people want to put down something as it isn’t worded quite right. Girls I commend you for making the effort to give something back to people along the way of your travels… I hear so many people on my travels say they will send photos and you know many don’t (I am not saying everyone here!!!)… its great to be able to do something small for people when they invite you into their Ger’s and share their lives with you! Look at the good people rather than looking for something negative! I have also spent a lot of time in Mongolia and met kids along the way who had never seen a Westerner before… Good on you girls!

  • Amaraa

    I am from mongolia and i have cousins who live in those tents. They are actually richer than us because they can sell their thousands of livestocks. Almost all of them have suvs, motorcycles, satelite tv with fashion tv channel and use solar panels for electricity. Those kids always get excited when they see foreigners. But they have def seen photographs before. Every mongolian family makes sure that their kids get photographed. They frame them and put them in their alter.

  • Pearly

    Goodness not again, this crap claim resurfaces again after two years of what I hoped would be a final death after Daily Mail splashed it. The video is pretty but this is the most ludicrous, outrageous, condescending, dumb claim about Mongolians seeing their pictures for the first time. If these two undoubtedly talented but totally clueless privileged kids had stopped viewing the “natives” as a strange cute species and even stepped into their homes, they would have seen the customary photographs dating back to their great grandfather’s time shot with Russian cameras that adorn the cupboards of each home and is usually placed alongside that satellite beamed multi-channel TV and the solar inverter right next to it. Come on PetaPixel, a little bit of research before reposting crap claims won’t hurt. Photography deserves credibility too.

  • Assdaa

    I think author has just defined him/herself as redneck …kkk

  • Emblem Parade

    First time seeing a photograph? This says much more about the ignorance of PetaPixel editors than the ignorance of Mongolians. I hope the Internet properly punishes PetaPixel for this nonsense.

  • nomin

    I highly doubt that they have never seen a photo of themselves. As a Mongolian citizen I know that, even among the most remote rural populations, almost every household has at least one cellphone that most likely has a camera or know someone in their community who has a cameraphone. On the other hand they might have never seen a polaroid camera before, so I think they are just excited to see their picture instantly printed out from the camera.