Living on the Fringes of the Modern World

By Kristen Philipkoski on at

While most of us get cozier by the minute with the latest iGadgets, perfected work and play stations, and 1,500 thread count sheets, nomads of many stripes are out in the world, roaming.

Fascinated by these mobile humans' dedication to travel and eschewing modern-day comforts, documentary photographer Jeroen Toirkens has been following nomadic tribes through Central Asia, Russia, Mongolia and the Arctic region since 1999. This year, his obsession culminated in a gorgeous book called Nomad, co-authored with Jelle Brandt Corstius, in which he documents the beauty and harshness of nomadic life. Poverty, climate change and land rights issues increasingly challenge their traditions and have made life (even more) difficult for these tribes.

Toirkens' nomad fascination started the Yörük tribe in Turkey's Bolkar Mountains, where families were struggling with an increasingly modern country. Real estate developers were buying the land they used as pastures, and young people were choosing city life. Toirkens later found the Sámi and Nenets in Russia, who before the Soviet era roamed the country with their herds. Under Soviet rule they were forced to work on collective farms, and the tribe is still struggling to re-establish their traditions. Other nomadic tribes, such as the Eskimos of Barrow, Alaska, have settled down, pursuing their (non-commercial) whaling tradition from a home base.

And while they may appear to be a fading human anomaly, scientists are finding indigenous tribes can provide valuable information about the environment that couldn't be collected without their help. Just yesterday, Stanford ecologists published a large scale study of the Amazonian environment the researchers say was only possible with the help of indigenous people.

"Because of the climate changing, we can see and feel the winter days are colder and the sea is warmer and because of that it's more difficult to hunt in the Winters," an Inuit man tells the Toirkens on the icy waters of East Greenland in the video above.

The author answered the following questions by email:

What was the most surprising thing you learned about nomads during the making of your book?

The most impressive thing about Nomads I've learned in the past 12 years is their amazing resilience and capacity to adapt to changes. Nomads have been adapting to change for ages. They are living on the edges of our society and earth. Both literally and figuratively.


Would you say that the nomad people are generally happy? Happier than people who live in the non-nomad world?

I would think that they are just as happy or unhappy as all of us. Maybe you can say that they are more in balance with nature but it is a very harsh way of life. As i said before, I've seen a lot of strength and resilience but I have also seen a lot of (social) problems such as conflicts concerning land right issues and oil and gas extraction, alcoholism and high suicide rates to name but a few.


Do the children go to school?

Depends on the country. In Russia and Mongolia most of the children go to school. In autumn a lot of families migrate to places closer to the villages so that children can attend school. Sometimes they stay with relatives.


How do the nomads support themselves? Do they mostly hunt?

That also depends on the country. Most nomads I've visited do hunt. But the reindeer people such as the Nenets, Sámi and Dukha people I've visited, they are reindeer herders and sell the reindeer meat and antlers. The Inuit in Greenland and Alaska are traditionally hunters. They hunt sea mammals like whales and seals. They do this in a non-commercial way and they use all of the animal.

[Nomad's Life]