Mongolia, 2018

With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, humans have never been so disconnected from nature.

With this in mind, I thought there had to be people feeling unfulfilled by this urban life, and going the opposite way: leaving the city to live closer to nature. And of course, there were. In 2013 I started “No Signal”, a long-term photographic project about men and women who have decided to leave the city in order to reconnect with nature on a daily basis, both physically and spiritually.

Without cutting themselves off from society nor avoiding new technologies, these people question some of the basic values of the modern world and chose to live a simpler life where who they are isn’t defined by what they own.

After photographing people in Alaska, Utah, Finland, France and Iran, I heard about Zaya, a young woman from Mongolia who had decided to live with a reindeer herder in the taiga. An odd choice for Mongolia, a traditionally nomadic country with harsh winters where most young people dream about moving to the city.

After four days of travel from home, I finally arrived at Zaya’s teepee in the middle of the Mongolian taiga where I was able to learn more about her story.

After growing up in Boulder, Colorado, Zaya studied international relations in Shanghai before moving back to Mongolia. She is hired by an NGO that works to protect and support a well-known nomadic tribe: the Dukha people.

Zaya discovers a world she thought belonged to the past and meets a young reindeer herder: Ultsan. He soon becomes Zaya’s husband and introduces her to his nomadic way of life. She becomes a reindeer herder herself as the young couple lives under a teepee, foraging and hunting for most of their food. Or at least they were until 2011 when hunting was banned in the area, making the life of the Dukha community much more difficult.

The extreme isolation of this region makes trips to the city limited and difficult: it takes 3 days to drive to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. One day on horseback and two days by car. A long trip that Zaya makes every winter to visit her family for Christmas.

Many people ask me if this is choice. Of course, I’m perfectly happy here! It’s surprising for every- one to see somebody with a good education, coming from an American childhood choosing to live with a reindeer herder, and actually becoming one.

A way for Zaya to live a new life, more simple and close to nature and her animals: “To me, life is not so much about how much you achieve but more about doing what makes you happy. Being here in the taiga with my dogs, my reindeer and my husband... it’s something that money can’t buy, it’s pure happiness.

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