For centuries, rock formations have shaped the backdrop of the unique Kazakh Eagle Hunting Festival, where hunter and eagle become one by testing their speed, agility and accuracy.
For over a thousand years, the nomads of the Altai mountains have hunted with golden eagles. Today, the ancient arts of the bürkitshi (“eagle hunter”) are carried on mainly by Kyrgyz and Kazakh nomadic groups who are dispersed in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and the Xianjian province in northwest China.
While archaeological studies suggest that there may have been as many, if not more female eagle hunters as their male counterparts, today eagle hunting is traditionally passed down among male relatives.
The hunters train their eagles to search for food and fur, honouring tradition and representing their tribe in the annual Golden Eagle Festival. Drawn to the spirit of the event, Australian photographer Sophie Howarth attended the most recent Festival, in the hopes of capturing some of its mysticism. Formerly a photographer of music festivals, Howarth says that there is a universality when it comes to witness all kinds of festivals across cultures, “ There is what I call a ‘oneness’ that happens between music, the audience and the stage and I started to think about where else I could find that.”
Researching other cultural festivals, Howarth says that she was keen to witness the Eagle Hunting festival, “Almost as soon as I stepped on the ground, it just felt really quite familiar, and what I realised was that it was just a particular energy,” she recalls.
Photographing the festival was not without its challenges, as Howarth found herself staying with a traditional Kazakh family, despite not knowing the local language. In addition to the language barrier, Howarth said that in order to capture the high soar levels and fast pace of the eagles, she often had to be in a constant state of ready, with a long heavy lens, riding on the back of a horse. Added to this was the fact that it was around -30 degrees and quite dusty. “My hands were cold at the best of times, I remember thinking ‘How am I actually going to take photographs’?”
Despite these challenges, Howarth was able to capture a range of photographs documenting this extraordinary event, and will be compiling her collection in a book called Soaring, to be released later this year. Howarth has also since been motivated to capture other eagle festivals around the world. She says that overall the event was filled with Baraka or ‘spirit’ – “It’s about that energy that lies between you and nature,” she says. “The way that I interpret this is that it makes people feel like they are involved in something greater than themselves. It is a magical experience.”
The Eagle Huntress
You too can witness the magic and mystery of the Golden Eagle Festival, with The Eagle Huntress documentary. Follow the story of Aisholpan, a 13 year old girl, as she trains to become the first female eagle hunter in twelve generations of her family in an uplifting story of determination and tradition. Expect to expand your sense of what is possible in The Eagle Huntress, available on Blu-ray and DVD Double Pack and Digital from July 5, 2017.
For more information on Sophie Howarth’s photography, view her website here