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Adjusting Scope & Scale

Submitted by on August 23, 2010 – 1:36 pm4 Comments

I have a Mongolian pen pal who is, conveniently, a guide during the summer months.  I have been corresponding with him through traditional pen-and-paper mail for a few months now, and though the mail between DC and Ulaanbaatar isn’t exactly the fastest ever, he has proven to be a wealth of information and advice.

One of his recent bits of advice has given me pause, however.  In his most recent letter, he expressed concern about my ability to reach all of the provinces within a reasonable amount of time and suggested that I “pre-choose” a limited number of locations to focus on.  My immediate reaction was to think “No, I know that I can do this!”, but upon reflection, I think that he has a good point.

I have always had difficulty with focus in my projects, and I tend to be too broad in the scope that I hope to accomplish.  Mongolia has 21 provinces and if I were to focus on even one aspect of each, much less the 2-3 I was originally thinking of, then I would likely have to be there for years. Given that I have 6 months, at most, of blizzard-free travel time, I suspect I need to rethink the scale of things.

Choosing to focus longer on a smaller number of “features” might be exactly what I need to do with this project. I have always emphasized depth and getting to know the local culture with this project, and I’m beginning to realize that if I am rushing from place to place, I’d be shooting myself in the foot when it comes to having a real connection with the nomads I will be staying with.

Between the slowness of horseback travel and having enough time to form an actual connection with the people I am attempting to document, I think it would be best if I focused on no more than five “features” for The Mongolian Experiment. I think five is a good number because it allows me to do one per month, with the assumption that I will be spending my first month or so based in a set location, learning Mongolian and better horsemanship.  Five allows me to do a project in the north, west, east, central, and Gobi areas of Mongolia, which still means covering the bulk of the country.  If I get there and travel is taking longer than expected, then it will be easier for me to adjust my plans.  Flexibility is absolutely necessary when doing a project like this in a country like Mongolia, and I think that focusing more deeply on a smaller number of cultural facets would increase the flexibility of the project.

What do you think?  Do you think it’s better to have a narrower focus or a broader one?  Which would interest you more as a potential reader/viewer?

[Photo by Michael Foley]


  • Abby says:

    I agree with your friend. Leave yourself time to share multiple meals with those you want to talk about in your work. And a narrower focus will give you time to explore bigger themes in what you find. If you went to too many places, you’d spend most of your time introducing scenes.

    • admin says:

      Yeah, as I said, my immediate reaction was to resist, but this is a problem I have seen in my previous work, and I think it would be good to focus more. Also, if I lower the number of areas I work in, I will also be able to learn the regions better, meaning I would be less likely to need a guide.

  • emilia says:

    Six months of blizzard-free ‘summer’ sounds optimistic. You need to wait to start riding until horses have fattened up enough (These guys were still pretty skinny in June) and stop early enough that they have time to rest and fatten up before the winter hits (This was the 1st week of September…).

    • admin says:

      Oh, I didn’t mean that I thought there was 6 months of “summer”! I meant that I think there are probably 6 months in which I can safely travel. I plan on spending my first month based with a family 45 minutes north of UB, teaching their guides English while working on my Mongolian, so that first month I won’t be doing riding of any real distances. By early May, I figure that the horses should be rideable.