Life & Culture

Arresting Photos of Mongolia’s Wrestlers

Photographer Kerry Dean presents a series documenting the wrestling style known as ‘Bökh’

‘Bökh’ is a form of wrestling that is native to Mongolia. The sport is ancient (it appears on bronze plates found in the ruins of the Xiongnu empire (206 BC–220 AD)) and was used by Genghis Khan to keep his army fit. Bökh is still practised today, most notably at the centries-old annual Naadam festival near Ulan Bator.

British photographer Kerry J Dean is fascinated by Mongolia and has been there on many occasions. She’s spent a lot of time photographing the country and is working towards an exhibition and book of the images she’s taken. Naturally, Mongolian wrestling forms a part of this and here, she shares a selection of her work.

While many photographers have captured these wrestlers in the throes of action, Dean chose a different route, shooting them during training sessions and offering a much more intimate view of these men. Here, she tells us about her love affair with Mongolia, its wrestling culture and the myth behind its costumes.

“I’ve been travelling to Mongolia for years. I have an almost unexplainable obsession with the place that keeps drawing me back.

“The body of work I’ve developed there isn’t really one project, it’s more like an accumulation of projects – spanning landscapes, portraits and still lifes – which I’m currently editing for an exhibition and book.

“Wrestling is such a huge part of Mongolian culture that I had to include it, but I was hesitant to do so because there’s already so much imagery of it – particularly of the Nadaam Festival where wrestlers gain their titles.

“These men are revered and idolised, but often come from poor families and continue to live with very little. I wanted to approach them in a less formal way to try and capture a more intimate view. So I spent sessions watching the wrestlers train, as opposed to them ‘performing’.

“To this day, there’s a myth about the costume they wear, which includes a short, heavy-duty, long-sleeved jacket [known as a zodogthat is completely open-chested. Legend has it, that there was once a woman who competed on behalf of her brother, who was ill. She went on to defeat all her opponents – male opponents – and from that day on, wrestlers’s chests have been revealed.

“In Mongolia, when a baby boy is born, they make a wish that he’ll grow up to be a wrestler. I was pregnant with a boy when I took these pictures, which seemed very poignant.” | @kerryjdean