in the Category: art

Frederik Buyckx

According to certain mythologies, the wolf guides people in their journey of self-discovery. Lonely yet powerful, the predator exhibits both beauty and danger. Just like the unspoiled nature of the Kyrgyz plateaus where they roam, and where award-winning photographer Frederik Buyckx shot his Horse Head series. The wolf, just like the horse, was an omnipresent force in Buyckx’ discovery of the Kyrgyz plains, one of the few places on earth where humankind still has to bend to the will and whims of nature.

Interview by Milena Maenhaut
Photos shot at the artist's home by Tiny Geeroms

You’ve been travelling extensively since you were a teenager. What came first, travelling or photography?

I started backpacking when I was seventeen. I tried to keep the costs down in order to work as few holiday jobs as possible and travel the entire summer. As I got the urge to capture my experiences, I became interested in photography and decided to pursue a degree in it. 

Accidental encounters are often the starting points of your photo series. How did you meet the Kyrgyz shepherds, the protagonists of Horse Head?

We met on my first day in Kyrgyzstan. I had just arrived at the airport and as I’m not very fond of cities, I took a bus South to the Naryn region. I dropped my backpack in the last town that had a hotel and started walking and hitchhiking along a road that goes for 150 kilometers all the way to China. In the afternoon I took a lift back. The driver had to drop something in a little village before he returned to the city. In the village some young men were playing a traditional sport on horses. I was so fascinated I told the guy to go to the city without me. That’s how Horse Head was born. I went back to the village seven times.

Was it hard to gain the trust of the community?

Not at all, we immediately clicked. I communicated with signals that I’d like to stay and they offered me a bed. In Kyrgyzstan you can ring every doorbell and get a meal. The shepherds immediately included me in their daily life. The experience was completely different when I did a project in Brazilian favelas six years ago. No one wanted their pictures to be taken, no one trusted me. It took months. 

In Kyrgyzstan you can ring every doorbell and get a meal

In Horse Head most subjects are men. Where are the women of the village?

Horse Head is a research on how men and nature depend on each other. It’s about shepherds who live day-in, day-out with their animals, and those shepherds are male. The women are cooking, washing and taking care of the children in the farms. When I would include them too, it would become a story about Kyrgyzstan and its culture, which wasn’t the purpose.

Since you’re a documentary photographer, you don’t manipulate your pictures. Yet you do tell a story about the central place of horses in the Kyrgyz community. Did the story come to your mind after you took the pictures or before?

I knew beforehand how important horses are in Kyrgyzstan, but I wanted to see it for myself. At first I photographed lots of things. After a while my focus zoomed in on nature and horses. Horses are part of every aspect of the shepherds’ life: they do their job and play sports with them, they eat horsemeat and horses are their main means of transport.

Can you ride a horse?

Now I can. [laughs] I spent about seventy days on a horseback.

Do you return to the village after every horse ride?

It depends. The community I visited is semi-nomadic. In winter they live quite isolated in farms in the mountains, about half a day away from the village. There’s no electricity or running water. In summer, when the snow melts, they do a two-day-trek with all their animals to the grazing plains where they live in yurts and let their sheep roam during the day. The shepherds keep yaks too, and they are freer. They are checked on every few days with binoculars. One night about 500 meters from where we slept, a yak was eaten by wolves.

One night about 500 meters from where we slept, a yak was eaten by wolves

You’re fascinated by how nature is incredibly beautiful and dangerous at the same time. Were you ever really scared? 

I felt uneasy quite some times. Once when I was walking alone, the weather suddenly changed and I couldn’t see a thing anymore. In moments like that you’re painfully conscious of the risk you’re taking. I like that feeling. One summer evening we were doing a trek for two weeks and we had to sleep in a valley notorious for its wolf population. As we were at a height of about 3000 meters, there was no vegetation. To repel the wolves, we had to make a fire with dried cow patties we found at an abandoned farm nearby. Burns well, though. [laughs]

To repel the wolves, we had to make a fire with dried cow patties

You don’t call yourself a landscape photographer, yet you did win the Photographer of the Year title of the Sony World Photography Awards with a series of landscapes.

That was the first time I ever shot landscapes. [laughs] It was weird to all of a sudden be called a landscape photographer as I mainly portrayed people for ten years.

Where do you want to go in the future?

Kyrgyzstan. [laughs] Wherever there are mountains, I’m happy. I’m also going to the jungle, to Colombia and Peru. Every place dominated by nature attracts me. 

Next week you’re going abroad again, right?

I’m going on holiday. I was super cold and busy for three winters in a row so this one I’m spending surfing in Mexico. It’s time for caipirinhas on the beach.

De Garage presents: Frederik Buyckx, Horse Head
12 Oct 2019 - 5 Jan 2020 – CC Mechelen, Mechelen