For Document’s tenth anniversary, the photographer presents the most memorable moments of his career in a series of portraits
In the late 19th century, philosophers pondered the death of God in the wake of the Enlightenment’s rapid modernization of society, which championed reason and science over all else. They were in part right, as irreligion grew decade by decade, especially from the early 1990s to the present. But God or a God-like entity did not lose its allure. The rise in religious non-affiliation does not necessarily correlate with a rejection of faith, but rather a rejection of the largeness of institutions through which prominent faiths function. As cultures become increasingly disparate, so do their practices of faith; so, faith is more subject to dissolution than outright abandonment.
Photographer Frédéric Lagrange accredits the goodness he has encountered across the globe to faith. Travel is ripely suited for memory-making and personal evolution. What holds strongest is not the grandeur of venerable architecture or the weight of a new weatherscape, but the strangers amid it all who, even momentarily, jump into your reality, re-orienting your experience—sometimes subtly, and other times with a heavy hand. Lagrange traversed the world’s continents in search of the people and places that are hardest to reach. In these spaces—to which he has no existing relationships and where he usually does not speak the language—he has been struck with an immensity of kindness and a willingness to open doors, homes, and hearts to a stranger.
Man’s animalistic tendancy is too often associated with a savage state of nature, when it can just as easily be a driving force for otherwise inexplicable goodness. There is no direct sensory experience of faith—in whatever form it manifests for individuals or groups—but there is something distinctly innate about looking after those who we do not know, working towards the good of the human species and the array of communities that it holds. In a portfolio for Document, Lagrange synthesizes his experiences into a series of faces that belong to some of those who offered him kindness without reasons—perhaps driven by a faith that is uniquely theirs.
“Portrait of an itinerant worker I met while in the Pamir Mountains. These people leave behind their families, communities, and few belongings to work for wealthy cattle owners higher in the mountains. They spend an average of four months tending cattle, seven days a week, in remote pastures deeper in the mountains. The payment for their work is a dozen lambs and sheep they will bring home—hopefully alive—after the treacherous three-to-fourday walk to their village.”
“Mongol rider and his horse bathing in the Buir Lake in Far East of Mongolia, summer 2005.”
“A Kyrgyz community leader at his winter settlement near Chaqmaqtin Lake, Wakhan
“Portrait of a sleeping woman on the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing the Gobi Desert from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. The train ride takes approximately 24 hours and crosses stunning landscapes.”
“During an expedition in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia, we came into contact with members of the Kombai tribe. These people build and live in treehouses to protect themselves from neighboring tribes and wild animals.”
“Uttarakhand, I met villagers in remote settlements inhabited by farmers and their families. We walked for miles through dirty paths and different outposts with no cars in sight.”
“I met this waitress while having lunch at a local restaurant in Kashgar, Xinjiang. At the time, 2001, there were no Chinese police or Secret Service agents tracking foreigners’ moves; there were no restrictions. The old part of Kashgar felt like it had not changed much since the Silk Road trade-era. As the border with Pakistan was about to close, the town was completely empty of foreigners, except for a handful of Americans. I felt a sense of unease around those Americans. They spent their days seemingly waiting for something.
Dressed in full robes, they bore a stark contrast to the mostly casual-looking local Uyghur Sunni Muslims. The writer accompanying me was convinced that they were trying to enter Pakistan through the Chinese border to join the Taliban forces in Afghanistan and fight alongside them. He turned out to be right. A few months later, back in New York, I received an email from the FBI requesting a meeting. The Americans I met in Kashgar a few months earlier were known as the terrorist group the Portland Seven. They were arrested by US authorities upon their return to American soil after they failed to enter Pakistan. One of the FBI agents told me I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, to which I remember replying, ‘I am never at the wrong place at the wrong time.’”
“I took this photo in the highlands of East Timor in 2003, just a few months after Indonesia relinquished control of the territory following a violent civil war that lasted 25 years. East Timor became the first state to become sovereign in the 21st century. A heavy atmosphere was felt on the island after such a tumultuous era.”
“In 2004, during a winter trip in Western Mongolia, I set up black fabric on one of the gers, a local Mongol dwelling made of felt, and shot portraits of local agents in Üüreg Lake.”
“Fisherman with homemade underwater goggles in East Timor, 2003.”
“We crossed paths with a young boy and his dog in the Andes, Peru, while walking along the Ancascocha Trail. This trail, a lesser-known trek than the Inca Trail, takes visitors through untrodden paths.”
“Portrait of a Mongol woman in Lake Khövsgöl, Mongolia, 2004. The first time I heard about Mongolia was from my grandfather’s tales about being a war prisoner during World War II. I must have been seven or eight years old. Both of my grandfathers were in the French Army and were prisoners in Germany during the war. One of them, Louis, was rescued in late 1944 by a detachment of Mongol soldiers who had joined the war under Soviet command. Mongolia was part of the Soviet Bloc at the time. As a child, I remember hearing laughter and seeing sparks of light in my grandfather’s eyes. He described how the Germans had run away at the first sight of strong Asian men coming from a remote country he had barely heard of, assaulting the camp and delivering the prisoners. He described how they all—American, British, French—and the Mongol soldiers euphorically jumped into each other’s arms. This scene left in my mind an indelible picture and an interest in Mongolia and Mongols. I thought I owed that country and these people for my grandfather’s life.”
“In the past 20 years, I had the opportunity to travel to Mongolia 17 times, exploring different parts of the country during different seasons. Winter is my favorite time to travel there. The season lasts for about eight months and brings extreme temperatures that make everyday life challenging, especially in the countryside. I have always been impressed with the resilience and ingenuity Mongols show during harsher days. In this photo, a family is being evacuated during a winter snowstorm in Tsengel, Western Mongolia, in 2004.”
“Portrait of a woman in her home in East Java, Indonesia, 2003.”
“Preachers gathered at the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India.”
“A Himba woman from the northern region of Namibia, 2012.”
“One late afternoon, while shooting for the “Incredible India” motion video in New Delhi, I met a man who had just completed painting the wall behind him with his crew. His clothes were covered with the fine orange dust from his painting mixture. I liked how his blue sandals contrasted against the overall orange scene. I asked if I could take his portrait and he nodded excitedly with a large smile. He then stood—his face frozen, stern, expressionless—transformed into a typical Indian pose.”
“Boy holding a machete on his way home from work on Banda Neira, located in the Maluku Islands, Indonesia.”
“We met this young boy on the road from Srinagar to Leh in Western India. This beautiful, rugged path was closed until 2006 due to the war in Kashmir, India.”
“Mother and daughter in Pantanal, Brazil.”