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So Far Away, So Near

Photography Nikki McClarron

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Back in April 2018, the young British photographer Nikki McClarron found herself striding across the eastern edge of the “Roof of the World” in her walking boots for the first time and was utterly captivated. The high-altitude landscape of the Tibetan plateau is “epic,” she says, “you just step outside, cross the road and you are in it—and the herds are everywhere.”

McClarron was invited to this windswept place—a nomadic settlement in Gansu province, comprising 230 families, 6,000 yak, and 20,000 sheep—by textile expert Kim Yeshi and her daughter Dechen. The mother-daughter duo founded their ethical brand for handwoven textiles, Norlha, here back in 2007. She ended up returning three times over three years to shoot the process, textiles, and the community who make them.

The people who live here are traditionally nomadic and although most now have homes of brick and mortar, their animal herds continue to define the rhythm of their lives, as they have for millennia. “If they are not weaving, then they are out herding,” says McClarron. The community is also very tight-knit, family-oriented, and mutually supportive. It is common for four generations: great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, and daughters to all be living together under the same roof: “It is really beautiful, there is a lot of love.”

“This was not just a job for me,” says McClarron. Having repeatedly immersed herself in the community for weeks at a time, she sees what they are doing there as slow and sustainable on a variety of levels: making tradition-based products of great quality, but with a focus that is as much upon workers and community as output and environment.

McClarron shoots only on film with her Mamiya medium-format camera and develops and prints the results herself, so each image is precious. That too allows her to be more reflective about what she is doing: taking time to get to know her subjects, their deep, Buddhist spirituality, and their connection to their animals. Adjusting to a different pace of life ruled by the turn of the seasons, or days by the quality of light on the grasslands “opened the door,” she says, “and pushed me in the direction that I want to continue.”