2023, Docu-stories

Exploring the Ecosystem behind Nomadic Wool Production in Inner Mongolia


For her series “Where the Wind Blows,” first published in our Unwoven zine, photographer Yichen Zhou visited three Mongolian sheepherder families in Mandula Town to explore the ecosystem behind nomadic wool production, documenting how these traditions are changing over time.

“Where the Wind Blows” uses wool as its point of origin. I visited three sheepherder families in Mandula Town, at the border between Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China, and Mongolia.
What was once a single nation is now divided by a national borderline.

With the development of the modern economy and new grazing techniques, the herdsmen that I photographed in Inner Mongolia had gradually given up their nomadic yurts and adjusted to “modern grazing” – moving into mud houses or brick homes with solar energy and high-speed internet. Now, they use motorcycles to herd their animals, monitoring equipment covers the entire grassland,
and their mobile phones let them find their flocks at any time.

Yet in the homes of each family that I visited, wool-related items were found in abundance. There were wool scarves, rugs, blankets, unfinished sweaters, a beloved lamb, and of course, their flocks.
I used these objects as backdrops to take their portraits. I crafted the cyanotypes, contact printing grass, sheep manure, and wool
in a way that contains the traces of time. I embroidered traditional Mongolian costumes on their pictures.

Through these objects and actions, I seek to show the entire ecosystem behind wool and find a pause between modern and traditional Mongolian culture that stops the loss of yesterday’s ways. With so much in flux, the only constant is the wind blowing across the grassland and the enduring prevalence of this material in their lives.


Where the Wind Blows

Yichen Zhou was the winner of our 2022 photography competition with Magnum Photos, which called on photographers to explore the visual stories that take place when fibers and materials are cultivated, created, spun, woven, sewn, loved and cherished – gaining cultural and emotional significance through the journey.