Sophie Howarth is a seasoned photographer who’s worked across music, advertising, editorial, and most recently, eagle falconry in Mongolia, about which she’s currently working on a book titled, Soaring The Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia. As captured in the documentary The Eagle Huntress, a young girl named Aisholpan defies strident gender norms to compete at the Golden Eagle Festival as the first ever female entrant. She and her eagle, Akkatnat (or white wings), triumphed. “It was by chance that I was at the festival on that historic day. Everyone was with her in spirit,” says Sophie. “The energy was really electric. The bright blue sky, men in pelts, racing camels, women in colourful fine embroidery, smoking yurts, laughing children. I’ve been to other festivals now and the day that Aisholpan competed and won was very different, the energy was very heightened.”
We asked a few questions of Sophie and her once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You’ve been taking photos for decades now. How have you managed to remain in love with the job?
I’ve had an enduring love of photography for a few reasons, I think. I found photography early on in life. When I went to art school, whilst I still favoured all other mediums, and as other things in my life developed, photography was the one medium that I could constantly be with. Meaning I could carry my camera everywhere and therefore be at the ready anytime to make something, make some art. It became my preferred medium and so my main means of creative expression. Over the years, I feel I’ve developed a respect for it because it has given me a life. I’ve had a creative life and a means to keep myself through photography. It has taken me on many adventures and I’ve met many interesting people. Photography has given me access to such a good life!
What attracted you to the Golden Eagle Festival and how did you become involved?
On my first trip to Mongolia, I’d been teaching beginner photography to a National Geographic group of travellers. Thomas, who I was working for, said if there are two things as a photographer to do in Mongolia, one is to visit the Golden Eagle Hunters and the other the Reindeer people. I returned home and the next year visited Mongolia again with just a thought about the Eagle Hunters. As it happened, this second visit to Mongolia coincided with the annual Golden Eagle Festival and Aisholpan’s history-making attendance at the festival.
What is your criteria for accepting a photography project?
This changes depending on where my own work is focused. Currently I am in pre-production for my book Soaring The Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia, an exhibition of the same name in November and a new exhibition next year. So my criteria for accepting a job or project at the moment is work that won’t take me too far away from meeting those deadlines. If it is a short job, like a portrait or photo essay, my intuition does come into my decision making; does it feel right? Can I make the photos that the client and I want? Am I happy to do the job for that budget?
What’s your advice for younger photographers who are striving to find their style or define their photography?
I think the key is to know your craft. All aspects. Obviously your gear, your camera. And more than this – your eyes, your seeing. There is so much to seeing. Looking with all your senses. How something moves, anticipating where the moment could happen when you need to click the shutter. It is tempting to drill with the digital gear, but “the shot” might be what falls in between those non-moments, the drilling. Be a constant observer, I think, watching light move – what is the feeling in different times of the light of day? What speaks to you? It is different for everyone. I think going in the darkroom and printing your own photographs gets you in touch with your images. It’s a place just for you to go to the roots of photography as a craft.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller? If so, how much of your job is performed without a camera in hand? As in, do you converse with your subjects where possible?
Yes. Photography has allowed me to make meaning through narratives of images or by a one-off photograph. I like how I can use my camera and go on a journey and take my audience with me. I like how a photograph can make the viewer curious as to what is going on outside the frame. To make these kind of photographs, yes, you constantly must converse with your subjects be [it] people or the environment.
Tell us about Aisholpan – the young girl who defies tradition to triumph at the Eagle Festival. What was it like to capture her win?
Aisholpan is a real bright spark. An absolute inspiration. She’s loved her in her hometown and the ripples are reaching far outside. To meet her is like meeting a rock star! I was at a festival this year and she was being mobbed by all the local Kazakh and Mongolian people who wanted their photograph with her. She is strong in many ways, as seen in the documentary. She is also a young girl and full of honest emotions.
Since Aisholpan’s triumph at the Eagle Festival, I have understood more its significance and meaning to her people. To have captured her triumph has become stronger and more meaningful as time goes on; a bit like photographing Nirvana! Her feeling toward her eagle and desire to follow the path of eagle hunting within the context of her culture, though not traditional for a woman, is natural to her. What I interpreted was even though there is a strong message about gender roles here, it is a natural nurturing and unfolding of what lies inside her. Her break with tradition and the gradual acceptance of a shift in gender roles is possibly going to help keep this tradition not only alive, but help it to flourish.
It was by chance that I was at the festival on that historic day. Everyone was with her in spirit. The energy was really electric. The bright blue sky, men in pelts, racing camels, women in colourful fine embroidery, smoking yurts, laughing children. I’ve been to other festival’s now and the day that Aisholpan competed and won was very different, the energy was very heightened. Her eagle swept down from its starting place on the hilltop in five seconds to her on her horse on the competition ground. It all happened so fast. Other eagles can take minutes to arrive to their hunter as they soar around in the sky. This was an all-time record score. The energy at the festival escalated and remained high during the two days until she was announced as the overall winner.
You’ve shot plenty of music festivals and concerts, now eagle falconry. What’s your next subject likely to be?
I’m still to complete this golden eagle falconry journey with the realisation of a book on this work, Soaring The Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia. And a new body of work, which is shot in Mongolia, though it includes photographs of the Kazakh eagle hunters, it’s not solely focused on them, to exhibit in 2018. Whilst focusing on one project, others are always quietly simmering away. All my projects have a relationship to each other. Last year, I went to Ireland with an idea of a book on Van Morrison… music, sound, stories, words, inner and outer adventures. Then there are the tigers in Rajasthan [India], which I recently became fascinated by through another person’s love and intrigue with them. The stories to interpret are endless! It is an unknown which project will take off; I often have many seeds planted and which one sprouts can often be the one I’m not watering.
The Eagle Huntress is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, and available in Blu-ray and DVD double pack.