My Big Break

1990 North­ern Mon­go­lia Nikon FM2

NPhoto - - Contents - Keith Wil­son

On ex­pe­di­tion in Outer Mon­go­lia

Within three months of com­plet­ing his Doc­u­men­tary Pho­tog­ra­phy course at the Univer­sity of Wales, New­port, Paul Harris was stand­ing in the Gobi Desert with the ex­plorer Tim

Sev­erin. He had pho­tographed Sev­erin as part of a fi­nal-year pro­ject com­pris­ing por­traits of Bri­tish ex­plor­ers. “I sent the pic­tures to Tim and he sent a let­ter back, thank­ing me, but also talk­ing about what he was plan­ning in Mon­go­lia.” In his let­ter the ex­plorer asked Paul if he knew of any pho­tog­ra­phers for his jour­ney. “I rang him up and said, ‘Tim, I’ve got just the man for you. Me!’ Which is what I think he had in mind.”

It was 1990 and Sev­erin, who had al­ready con­trib­uted to Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, hoped to gain the mag­a­zine’s back­ing for this ad­ven­ture. Paul re­calls: “They didn’t go for it be­cause the Ber­lin Wall came down, and all these big sto­ries were com­ing out of Rus­sia.”

An ini­tial two-week trip to Mon­go­lia re­vealed a coun­try still in­flu­enced by the leg­end of Genghis Khan. So, de­spite

Na­tional Ge­o­graphic’s cool re­sponse, the men re­turned to Mon­go­lia to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. “Tim had heard sto­ries that he had been buried in a province north of Ulan Ba­tor, so the plan was to mount this ex­pe­di­tion that would climb this sa­cred moun­tain, Burkhan Kal­dun, close to where they thought Genghis Khan was buried.” On the jour­ney Paul en­coun­tered this man and his fam­ily erect­ing a yurt. “Nei­ther of us had seen a yurt be­ing erected, but it showed us the speed with which one of these houses could be put up. I think they did it in less than an hour.”

Two months and 375 rolls of Velvia film later, Paul left Mon­go­lia with only the prospect of Sev­erin’s book, In Search of Genghis Khan, pro­vid­ing a use for his pic­tures. Even­tu­ally, in 1996, the Swiss mag­a­zine An­i­man pub­lished 18 of his photos. But it was a chance en­counter with a cou­ple of tele­phone engi­neers in Ulan Ba­tor that led to the most lu­cra­tive break­through: “I was con­tacted by a stock li­brary at the start of the trip ask­ing for pic­tures of tech­nol­ogy be­ing in­tro­duced in re­mote coun­tries. In the ho­tel I was stay­ing there were a cou­ple of Ca­ble & Wire­less engi­neers in­stalling a new tele­phone sys­tem.” Paul pho­tographed them and sent the pic­tures to Ca­ble & Wire­less. “Some­one called and said, would I like to shoot some pic­tures for them? So, I had my first cor­po­rate client!”

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