Initially beginning his creative pursuits in graphic design, which took him to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent where he completed an MA, it wasn’t until later that Yuri Andries delved into photography. Intrigued by the medium’s capability to both document reality and engage with the imagination, he began attending seminars run by Magnum photographer, Carl de Keyzer. After attending these for six months and feeling endlessly inspired, Yuri tackled several courses in analogue photography. Later finding himself a position as an assistant at a photography studio and honing his skills in digital editing and light, in 2016 he finally took the plunge and started working on his own projects.
And it’s a good thing he did. Having since been featured in publications such as National Geographic and GUP Magazine, Yuri clearly has a keen eye for beautiful images. Venturing to far-flung locations such as Indonesia, Colombia and Lanzarote to document his findings, it wasn’t until he travelled to India that he faced his biggest challenge yet: the desolate, harsh landscape of Ladakh.
Topographically dominated by imposing mountains and deep valleys, Ladakh, meaning “land of the high passes”, is a remote region of India that sits 3500 meters above sea level. A Buddhist ex-kingdom, it is barren and sparsely populated, bar small communities of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan people. Prized as a crosspoint of important trade routes in the past, activity in the area began to dwindle in the 1960s after China closed its borders to Tibet and Central Asia.
Around a decade later, the Indian government began encouraging tourism to Ladakh, reigniting contact with its neighbouring regions. Coupled with its strategic position in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, military forces also began establishing a presence in the area because, as Yuri says, it’s a land “rife with tension and fears of conflict.”
But large parts of Ladakh remain unpopulated and inhospitable. With temperatures ranging from 35 degrees in the summer to -35 degrees in the winter, those who do live in the region survive by utilising the few natural resources available. Adopting inventive approaches to irrigation, the population uses water from nearby glaciers for their farming, which has “now become problematic because of climate change and the melting ice,” says Yuri. Sustainable energy is also a priority, with solar power being generated by panels that benefit from the high altitudes. It’s this simple existence, played out in an otherworldly landscape that Yuri wanted to capture and ultimately led to the series’ title: Moonland.
“This series is a portrait,” explains Yuri. “I wanted to celebrate Ladakh and its people.” Spending much time in the Buddhist eco-village of SECMOL, he was greeted with warm hospitality and a welcome break from the harshness of his surroundings. Watered and fed, Yuri began forging relationships with the isolated community that hosted him, and these connections would prove just as magical as the landscape. Documenting everyone from school children to village elders, his portrayal of life in Ladakh depicts both its frugality and spirituality.
“Children meditate and adults sing as they work,” says Yuri. “India usually brings to mind images of bright colours, noise and chaos, but Ladakh is the total opposite.” In fact, the only pops of striking colour to be found in Yuri’s photos are manmade – the clothes, the buildings and the occasional solar panel. The rest of the frame is filled with the neutrality and organic colour palette of the mountains and valleys in every direction. Browns, beiges, and greys cover the region, serving in the images to highlight mankind’s insignificance amongst the vastness of nature. But instead of diminishing their presence, it speaks of their hardiness, determination and faith. Faith not just in their religion, but also in the landscape which nourishes them and, at the same time, threatens to erase them.
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