Photo Exhibition: Pastoralism in an Uncertain World

Uncertainty and pastoralism go hand-in-hand. From our research as part of the PASTRES project, we see first-hand how uncertainty and dealing with uncertainty shapes how pastoralists across the globe act. As one pastoralist in Amdo Tibet told us:

‘Everything is Mi Rtag Ba [what happened is already the past], and what is going to happen is unpredictable; all we can depend on is the present, what happens now, we deal with it now’.

Our  online exhibition, Seeing Pastoralism, gives  pastoralists an opportunity to share their experiences of uncertainty and how it has an impact on them. There is much that can be learned from pastoralists when it comes to uncertainty, as for many it is the only constant. Yet uncertainty is a broad term that encompasses many different factors. Our exhibition – and associated newspaper – presents eight different dimensions of uncertainty that emerged from our work with pastoralists across six countries in three continents.

Shocks and Stresses

With the pandemic, we are all confronted by uncertainty on a daily basis. But for pastoralists, pandemics are just one of a number of shocks and stresses that cause uncertainty. The interdependence between pastoral life and the natural world is felt during natural disasters like floods, storms, snowfalls and droughts. Wildlife attacks and events such as a plague of locusts can also be included in this list. With our changing climate, these disturbances can overlap, or are far larger and quicker than seen before, testing the practised, adaptive strategies of pastoral communities.


Reconfiguring  livelihoods and diversifying activities is a practice that many pastoralists are using to respond to diverse uncertainties. Keepers of livestock are occasionally farmers, tour guides, foragers, bakers, miners, olive pickers and even shopkeepers. This helps them deal with the full range of of uncertainties that they experience in a fast-changing world.

Social Networks, Moral Economies

Pastoral systems are highly connected, with nurtured relations between individual pastoralists and other communities generating and renewing forms of resilience. Connections exist online, around a fire, at a sheep shearing or in Tibet at an annual yak beauty contest. Livestock management is a task that is very difficult to be managed individually. It is a livelihood where solidarity, labour exchange and collective protection are fundamental.


Movement is a key part of pastoralists’ livelihoods. Daily or seasonal movement enables pastoralists to exploit diverse environments, relationships and economies. Configurations of old and new transportation infrastructure allows for pastoralists to be mobile amidst uncertainty.

Negotiating Authority

Points of contact between institutions and pastoral lives are many and constantly brokered, as negotiating with authority is part of responding to uncertainty. Imposition of state authority can be observed in a resettlement village, whereas resistance and protest can be seen beneath an Acacia tree or through the informal creation of cheese without accreditation.


Continuous innovation is essential in order to live under highly variable conditions and constant uncertainty. Despite stereotypes, new and old forms of technology exist simultaneously in the pastoral landscape. Often the most simple, durable, portable and importantly repairable technologies are used as ways of responding to diverse uncertainties.

Mobilising Identities

Forms of identity create continuity despite uncertainty and change. While traditions do play a major role in pastoralism, they are neither timeless nor fixed. Newer traditions can complement the old in a way that is adaptive to dealing with uncertainties, while customs rooted in the past are also carried into the present.


Pastoral economies are constantly subjected to diverse uncertainties.  Variations in market price, regulations and consumer behaviour all shape the way pastoralists negotiate market arrangements and practices of selling.

For more on all these themes, check out the Seeing Pastoralism website, where we have used photovoice and documentary photography as a means of pastoralists telling their own stories about living  with and from uncertainty.

None of this work would have been possible without the brilliant work of Roopa Gogineni, who aided PASTRES students in editing their photos and creating the newspaper exhibition.

You can see more and follow the PASTRES project on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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