In Contort, Kerry J Dean continues a 15-year long documentation of Mongolia

The photographer has long been nurturing a fondness for the country and its culture. Here, she talks us through her latest series – a project lensing the tradition of contortion.

28 January 2021


There are some places in the world that a photographer will always think of fondly. Travel is one of the medium’s great perks, giving reason to meet fascinating subjects and document a new environment, culture and memory. Kerry J Dean, who was born and raised in the Midlands, UK, travelled to Mongolia for the first time alone 15 years ago, where she volunteered for a charity working with endangered Przewalkski horses. The result of which is a series, and her first solo exhibition titled The emptiness of a Land with no Fences. Little did she know that this trip and the friendships formed would end up being her subject matter for many years to come.

Throughout Kerry’s career, she’s worked with and been published by an enviable list of clients and publications, including AnOther, Christopher Raeburn, Hussein Chalayan, i-D, Ziet magazine, GreenPeace, Simone Rocha, Selfridges and Vogue (UK, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine), to name just a few. She was also nominated for the prestigious Hyères festival last year, and showed work at Unseen Amsterdam. Most captivating is that, ever since she first packed her bags for travel at the age of 18, she’s been able to lens the most inimitable images of Mongolia. For example, Kerry’s previous series Pom Poms Girls looks at the trend for gauzy pom poms among pre-teenage girls living in the Gobi desert. The photos are observational, affectionate and warming – just a few lasting qualities that makes Kerry’s photography remarkably her own.

Kerry’s most recent offering – besides a portrait series entitled Self, son and Simone, in which she photographs her family of three during pandemic life in their new woodland home – is Contort. Still in its infancy, the photographer looks into the act of contortion and how it’s deeply rooted in Mongolian culture, or very much celebrated as an important part of the country’s heritage. “During the ‘70s years of communism, contortionists were used to showcase Mongolian discipline and physical prowess on the international stage,” she explains of the series’ context. “Having a contortionist in the family is a badge of honour to this day.” This art of contortion is incredibly popular in the country, and has affirmed itself as a sought after skill ever since the 13th century. Often performed by girls or young women, it involves twisting, bending, folding and Mongolian traditional dance; it beholds a rich history and, as part of her latest body of work Observations and Orchestrations, it’s been the photographer’s focus point over the last five years.

GalleryKerry J Dean: Contort. (Copyright © Kerry J Dean, 2021)

The series looks at the oddity and beauty found in the historical performance which dates back to the ages – “the clashes between tradition and contemporary culture,” says Kerry, noting how its these “unexpected and incongruous” elements of Mongolia that she’s drawn to. These moments include the observations of a small group of girls making their way to school, all adorned with brightly coloured pom poms in their hair; “the last trace of the communist education system”; or deserted cars and trucks protected in cloth from the extreme weather; all of which are observations that Kerry refers to as “obsessions” and thus the beginning of a new and cohesive series that we're seeing for the first time here.

Plenty of pre-planning takes place before Kerry embarks on a shoot, all with the help of her Mongolian friend and fixer Ishee, who assists with the conversations and stress of WhatsApp messages beforehand. It must be known that Kerry prefers not to refer to her work as documentary, for each image detects an unbound level of connectivity between herself and the subject. “I want to represent a truth, which often starts with an observation,” she says. “I then work to almost amplify scenes, revisiting them, adding and subtracting materials, props and set, re-staging, working with what already exists, continuously checking with my fixer if the representation feels honest – exaggerated but honest.”

This level of compassion becomes ever-so apparent throughout Contort, a series that sees Kerry photograph the contorting girls at the Miracle Club in the city of Ulaan Bataar. “In Mongolia,” she continues, “the practicalities of every day still seem so incredibly theatrical, it often feels like a privilege to be allowed to witness domestic acts and traditions.” Having been around for centuries, it’s no wonder Kerry expresses concern that, with the increase of modernisation, these historical practices may become lost. “I wonder if contortionist and other sporting skills or performances that are so celebrated in Mongolia, will perhaps be replaced, and forgotten in years to come?”

With the rise in urbanisation and digitisation across the country – plus a heavy contrast between city and country life – this does indeed pose some threats on the art of contortion. Kerry plans to re-visit her subjects again this year to expand on the project, returning again to photograph the beauty, strength and devotion towards such a highly skilled art form like contortion. Of course, these plans are currently on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions, but alongside the hope to release a published book and exhibition in the near future, Kerry’s ongoing work in Mongolia will become a historical marker – one that will keep its legacy alive as a beautiful artefact.

GalleryKerry J Dean: Contort. (Copyright © Kerry J Dean, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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