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The Nomadic Roots of Mongolian Sumo Success

Sumos is a film that came about when Catherine Hyland went to the city Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia as well as the place where the majority of Mongolian Sumos are from. The film slowly reveals the characters of the young boys as they contend, the older generation of Sumos who school them and the way that sumo wrestling is controlled by Japan, potentially to the Mongolian's detriment.

Half way through the filming Hyland chose to drive the boys out of the poor city and away from the adults, to a small village she had visited before. To allow the kids to be kids, "Even in the car we were having a chat and having fun. It was so different to working with the adults who seemed very nervous and vulnerable". In the beautiful mountains Hyland's sunny images capture the true camaraderie of the young boys and their passion and hopes to become the ultimate yokozuna status – a grand champion in the ring.

Hyland first heard about the Mongolian Sumos when she was in the country shooting her 2017 project, Universal Experience, a series of totally awe-inspiring photographs. This is also when she discovered the policies that the JSA (Japan Sumo Association) began in order to control the amount of foreigners allowed to train at the prestigious sumo stables. The first policy was introduced the year that the first Mongolian became sumo champion; JSA ruled that there could only be one foreign athlete per school. In addition, when the stables (independently from JSA) began to encourage foreign wrestlers to seek Japanese citizenship in order to train with them, the organization changed its rules again, limiting access to anyone not born in Japan.

“I’ve gotten more and more interested in this idea of abuse of power,” Hyland says. “The more I read about it, the more it seemed apparent the Japanese had tried to use red tape to keep the Mongolians out of sumo.

When you show certain capabilities and you intimidate people – in all walks of life – they'll try and keep you down. I called the work The Rise of the Mongolians because they're 100% the underdog of the sport. But their natural ability now means they can't be ignored.”

Hyland decided to focus not on the problems, hardship or the poverty of Ulaanbaatar but instead she looked "at the optimism of the people that live there, I always want my work to have optimism embedded in it.”