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The changing face of Mongolia

A rush for natural resources like coal, gold and copper has filled pockets in Mongolia, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But the country is also facing rising inequalities, especially in its capital, Ulaanbaatar.

Sven Zellner, a German photographer and cinematographer who has worked in Mongolia since 2004, explores the effects of the city's newfound wealth in “Mongolian Disco.”

For his past projects, Zellner stayed mostly in the Gobi desert, photographing nomads, wrestlers and illegal gold miners. During his time in the capital, he said, “I realized that it was changing very fast,” as Mongolia moved from a nomadic to urbanized society, from sleepy streets to traffic jams.

In his photos, which have been exhibited in Germany, Zellner captures the city’s dizzying transformation and social divides. He documents Ulaanbaatar’s new status symbols: shiny glass towers, glitzy clubs and luxury cars. “People like to drive a big, four-wheel drive Lexus," he said. Even the country’s parliament house has received a lavish new facade.

Clothing is also in flux. When Zellner first arrived in Ulaanbaatar, home to half of Mongolia’s population, 10 years ago, "there were many more people in traditional clothes,” he said. “And now it’s much more mixed, more metropolitan. People look at Western styles and copy that, and also at Korean and Japanese styles and copy that."

The subjects Zellner photographed were suspicious of him at first, and he was initially kicked out of clubs for trying to take pictures. But with persistence, people began to open up — even inviting him into their Lexuses.

“You have to get to know them first and drink some beers with them, and then next time you see them, you can start taking photos,” he said.

While Zellner started by focusing on the upper class, he soon turned to the other side of Ulaanbaatar. More than half of the city’s 1.3 million people live in ger districts —shantytowns of traditional felt tents. These impoverished areas lack running water, sanitation, central heating and other basic infrastructure. Residents of the ger districts, like a man dragging cartons of water from the city’s river, are a world away from the clubgoers and models Zellner also depicts.

But connections are there. A woman Zellner met at a disco introduced him to the young shaman featured in one of his most powerful portraits. Mongolian shamans, who were forbidden under Soviet rule, claim supernatural powers and offer advice — for a fee. “It's kind of a business," Zellner said.

A desire for traditional spiritual guidance even among the new elite shows how dislocating the changes in Ulaanbaatar are, Zellner said. He thinks the Ulaanbaataris in his photos "don't know where they really belong."

“It’s a city in search of an identity,” he said.

- Casey Tolan, Special to CNN