Ancient Sport of Horseback Archery Sparks Unexpected Bond

A young woman from Finland travels to the mountains of Iran—and back in time—to train with a master archer.

It’s almost hard to believe Brice Portolano’s photographs that look straight out of a medieval era only came about because of social media.

Portolano, a photographer from Paris, first discovered horseback archery when he saw pictures on Facebook that his friend Anna Minkkinen had posted of Iranian world champion Ali Ghoorchian.

Minkkinen, a Finnish student who had been practicing martial arts, sent Ghoorchian a message asking if she could come to Iran and learn more about horseback archery. Ghoorchian said yes, and Portolano tagged along on assignment for a Finnish magazine.

Portolano stayed for 12 days to photograph Minkkinen and Ghoorchian and the intricacies of the ancient sport, which is on UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

“Ali is very, very passionate about Persian culture so his goal is to keep the Persian culture alive so they like to dress in the old times and to feel the timelessness of what they’re doing,” said Portolano.

Anna and Ali chase and shoot arrows while playing Mogu, a traditional Korean game, in which one person on horseback goes ahead dragging a ball made of bush clover.

Horseback archery has been practiced since the ninth century B.C. in central Asia, so Ghoorchian and Minkkinen don traditional garb to reflect the antiquity of the practice, he said.

Originally, horseback archery was used for hunting or warfare, but it has evolved into a competitive sport in countries such as Japan, South Korea, Hungary and Poland.

“It’s martial arts, so it’s a sport that’s meant to be defensive,” said Portolano. “It’s mostly they shoot either at themselves or at targets.”

While horseback archery is steadily gaining popularity in the western world, it’s not often practiced in the Middle East. In fact, Ghoorchian is one of the few people who practices the sport in Iran, Portolano said.

The pictures Portolano took in Iran were part of his larger photography project called “No Signal,” which documents people who have decided to choose lives entrenched in nature rather than the modern world.

The only trick to getting the high-speed action shots featured here, though, was just being in the right place in the right time, said Portolano.

“It’s all about how you position yourself during the action,” he said. “You just have to know when the person is going to shoot and where the target is and where to stay to be safe.”