‘Better on Dirt Than Concrete’

Photographer Nevada Wier tells the story behind a wild picture from western China

By / May 2013

Some might consider it a risk to stand on a rock amid the stampede of some 50 horses in spirited pursuit of a headless goat carcass. But, after about an hour of photographing a game of buzkashi from among the vocal spectators on the perimeter, I knew I had to get closer. Anyone can stay on the edges and show you what this intense, significantly more graphic, rendition of polo looks like.

It takes another sort of effort to put you in the action and help you experience what it actually felt like: how the earth trembled under the steady rhythm of hoofs rising and falling; how the sound, as strong as thunder, rendered into whisper the hooting and hollering of the women and children rimmed around the field; how the dust, stirred up by every step, disguised the mid-afternoon sun; how the face of each horse matched the gritty determination of its rider.

That’s why, during a lull in the action, I ran out to a more precarious perch in the middle of the field of play. I knew I needed a more dramatic photograph to carry my story about wedding and funeral ceremonies of the Kirghiz minority in the Pamir Mountains of western China. I wanted a picture that would represent the game’s wild intent. I didn’t want people to scratch their head and wonder what’s happening. I wanted them to say, “Oh, my god, There’s something intense going on here.”

And maybe it was the excitement of my first assignment for National Geographic or my earlier experiences as a river guide, rock climber, and Outward Bound instructor, but I felt at ease as I photographed the horses storming past me from all angles. The resulting image proved to be an early, affirming step of a recurring truth in my photography endeavors — that I’m best in fast moving situations, in sweaty assignments — even if in this particular instance it meant I came out looking like a brown ball and spent the next several days clearing dust out of my tent and camera.

Photography became an essential piece of my travels when my curiosity over life at the bottom of mountains supplanted my desire for adventures at the top. So I entered into the slow process of teaching myself how to turn a hobby into a career. I got to know equipment, studied the greats, and developed my own perspective.

Since those early years, I have had the good fortune of traveling to a myriad of remarkable and obscure places in the world. But, to be honest, it’s not as idealistic and glamorous as it seems from the outside. I’m always on the move. I’m always adjusting to different foods and lifestyles. It’s hard to make a living or have a family.

But with each passing year it has become clear that I was born to roam. I don’t care about getting married and having a family; I just want to travel and photograph. So onward I march into the compelling and remote corners of this world, in search of personal, evocative moments, where the next generation is trying to hold history in its hands like water. Who knows where I’ll sleep or what I’ll eat; what discomfort or uncertainty I’ll face. I love expeditions without maps or GPS because from the outset, I’ve always proven better on dirt than concrete.


Nevada Wier is an award-winning photographer specializing in the remote corners of the globe and the cultures that inhabit them. You can see more of her work here.