‘Reared Back on Hind Legs’

Photographer Jorgen Johanson tells Brandon Hoops the story behind a great picture from Kyrgyzstan

By / September 2012

A horse, accustomed to the ways of speed, looks uncomfortable when asked to participate in a wrestling match. The long, blurred strides that pound the earth as if trying to outrun its rotation are replaced with the choppy steps and jerky movements one might expect to see in a cock fight.

Gone is the elegant cooperation between horse and rider as they lean in anticipation of a finish line. Instead, a desperate tug of war between two shirtless riders ensues. They grab and push and pull, the horses beneath them rendered mere bystanders.

For the two weeks in 2005 that I traversed Kyrgyzstan by bus with about a dozen other photographers, it was unique cultural elements like this that were embedded into my photography. The sport goes by the name of oodarysh, and, as one of Kyrgyzstan’s traditional competitions, it displays the country’s rich horse culture.

One might liken the competition to medieval jousting, without the long, devastating poles, but neither rider seems interested in letting his horse build up momentum. They just want to get into a position where they can reach their opponent and use muscle and maneuvers to send the other off his steed. The horses, like branches caught in a strong wind, throw their heads in wild compliance to the sudden and torrid affair.

Jorgen Johanson, 55, is a software developer in Oslo.

The little matches carried on throughout the afternoon, a sort of practice. The exceptional effulgence of the sun soaking the barren landscape of the Kyrgyzstan highlands, combined with the fast and unpredictable action, made photography difficult. So I mostly watched and tried to learn how the game worked.

It wasn’t long after one rider prevailed that he kicked his horse out of the dirt arena and up a grassy hill. It was hard to tell if he or his horse got excited, but the moment the horse reared back on hind legs as if to punctuate the rider’s exuberance, I was ready to snap a picture.

Photography has been an essential part of my travels since I went to Nepal in 1985. It helps me to remember and show where I have been. In the beginning, I did mostly scenic shots because photographing people was intimidating and somewhat difficult. It took some years before I was able to make some OK photographs with people.

A big impetus in pushing me out of my comfort zone has been a camera club in my hometown of Oslo, Norway. Of this group, I am the only non-professional photographer. One has nabbed several awards, another photographs celebrities for magazines, another shoots weddings, and still another chases amazing wildlife. Our main purpose, besides getting together to share photos and food, is to critique and give feedback. It’s really stimulating. I am learning a lot and improving a ton.

In fact, I can say I’m much more dedicated than I was when I started. I’m now on a mission. It’s no holiday when I travel to places like China or India. It’s hard work. From really early in morning until late at night, I’m much more focused. I used to be unsure and hesitant. Now I know what I want to achieve, and I go after it. Then when I finish, probably much like the horse and his rider, I am eager to raise my lilting voice.


— as told to Brandon Hoops