A young Uyghur seasonal worker pauses in a field during the last days of the cotton harvest in Luntai County in Xinjiang in November 2016. Cotton is one of the largest agricultural industries in the province, and many local Uyghurs are used as cheap labor during the harvest.
Chinese netizens were up in arms in July when self-taught French documentary photographer Patrick Wack, 42, posted his photos and captions of northwestern China’s Xinjiang region on Eastman Kodak’s Instagram account. The photos were from his book, “Dust,” a compilation of more than 70 images of life in Xinjiang, ordinary Uyghurs, and changes in their surroundings that were produced in two projects in 2016-17 and 2019.
Chinese online nationalists strongly objected to Wack’s captions, one of which described his goal documenting “life under acute repression among the Uyghur minority alongside the disturbing simultaneous increase of Han-Chinese tourism in the region.” In response, Kodak removed the images from its Instagram page and apologized for any offense they caused.
The U.S. company also issued a statement posted on China’s social media platform WeChat, pledging to “continue to respect the Chinese government” and “keep itself in check.” The move drew accusations that Kodak was committing censorship to please the Chinese Communist Party. Reporter Kurban Niyaz from RFA’s Uyghur Service recently talked with Wack about his experiences in Xinjiang and the Kodak affair. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
The old city of Kashgar in May 2016 lies mostly in ruins, destroyed by Chinese authorities in order to build a new version of the ancient silk road city.
RFA: How did you become interested in photographing Xinjiang?
Wack: I started this project in 2016. I had been in China for 10 years at that point, based in Shanghai, but working all over China and quite a bit in in Asia, outside of China as an editorial and commercial photographer but also working on long-term documentary projects. I wanted to do a final project in China, and I wanted to document a place that was in China but that didn't look like China. I didn’t want to do another project on the industrial eastern coast or the development of the center of China. At that time, Xinjiang interested me because the new Silk Road policy had just started, (and) there was a lot of talk about the development of western China. I also knew about the repression of the Turkic minorities there, so there were different reasons that were coming together that led me to the Uyghur region.
I decided to first go to Xinjiang in early 2016. I spent two months over a period of one year in Xinjiang, so I went four times for that first project called “Out West.” I thought my work in the Uyghur region was finished, but then in 2018 came the first reports of mass incarceration policies actually being underway in China, and that was completely horrifying. I then thought that I had to go back. I had to update my project, and I had to see the transformation of the region and what was happening. That’s why I went in 2019 on two trips. I spent one month in the Uyghur region in 2019 for a second project called “The Night is Sick.”
The old city of Kashgar was the only remaining ancient silk road town.
RFA: Which areas or cities in Xinjiang did you go to and why?
Wack: I basically divided the region into four parts, and on each trip I went to that part. The first part was dedicated to the Tarim Basin, so I spent a lot of time in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi), Hotan (Hetian), and the Tashkurgan (Tashikuergan) area. Every trip started with Urumqi (Wulumuqi) because I had to fly there. During the second trip I spent more time in Urumqi and Turpan (Tulufan). On the third trip, we traveled a lot within the Taklamakan Desert and along its northern and southern rims. We drove through the desert and into Qinghai and Gansu provinces, and then we returned to the Uyghur region through Kumul (Hami) and Turpan, and then went back into Urumqi.
On the fourth trip, we spent a lot of time mostly in the western area on the border with Kazakhstan and also in the north up to the Russian border. We went to Kanas Lake and Sayram Lake and that whole area. When I went back in 2019, those trips were dedicated much more to the Uyghur community, so I spent most of my time in Kashgar and Hotan. I tried to go to Yarkan (Shache), but I was picked up by the police on arrival and kicked out right away. I also spent time in Aksu (Akesu) and in Kuchar (Kuche).
People gather for an event in Hotan’s Tuanjie Square in May 2016. In the center of the square stands a statue of Kurban Tulum shaking hands with Mao Zedong. Kurban Tulum was a Uyghur peasant who lived in Yutian County and was promoted by the Chinese Communist Party as a symbol of unity with the Uyghurs.
RFA: When you were in Xinjiang, did you notice any change in the political atmosphere or did you see any of the re-education camps?
Wack: On the last trip I took, I did see camps, but I didn't stop in front of them and try to photograph them, because it would have just gotten me arrested and kicked out, never to be able to go back to Xinjiang. At one point when I was in Urumqi, a taxi dropped me off by mistake in front of a camp, and when I realized it, I tried to walk away discreetly. I was arrested right away by plainclothes police officers who interrogated me, asking me what I was doing there. For two hours, it was non-stop police officers coming to interrogate me. When I was in front of the gates of that camp, I saw people coming out with hoods over their head and chained from their feet to their hands, and being driven out of the camp. That was the time where I actually witnessed a camp, but I was surrounded by police officers, and I could not take any pictures.
When I came back for those two trips in 2019, there was shootable proof that those camps exist and that this mass incarceration policy is going on. My point was not to photograph the camps. There would be no point for me to just try and photograph walls or towers that would not show anything. What I was trying to document was the change in the landscape of the region and the transformation of the region, and the fact that it looked radically different from my first trip in 2016 to my first trip of 2019. They were only three years apart, and the region had changed completely, the landscape had changed completely. Women were not veiled anymore. All the mosque were closed. You couldn’t hear the calls to prayer anywhere.
The mosque in Kashgar was filled with people when I was there in 2016, but in 2019, I didn't see anyone going to pray at any mosque. All of the religious or cultural signs in the landscapes of the cities, in the cityscapes, were remotely Muslim or Middle Eastern. All that basically showed that this was the land of Islam and that it had been removed from the landscape. Even the fake golden domes on top of the towers of supermarkets or bazaars had been removed. Huge LED screens were showing Chinese propaganda and videos of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping everywhere. The look and the feel of the Uyghur region had completely changed. It felt like the whole region was turning into any other Chinese city. The destruction of the old city of Kashgar had moved forward. It felt more and more like an artificial version of what it was. I also went to quite a few cemeteries that were partly destroyed. It really felt like an acceleration of what you could start seeing in 2016 and 2017.
A Han Chinese migrant worker from eastern China makes a phone call near a construction site in Altay in far northern Xinjiang.
RFA: There is overwhelming evidence about the alleged ongoing genocide in Xinjiang being exposed by mainstream media. During your time there, what kind of political or economic evidence did you see of this policy?
Wack: You could see that there was an economic segregation in the economy in Xinjiang society. Because fossil fuels — with the extraction of oil being one of the main industries that was generating wealth in the region along with the construction industry in 2016 and 2017 — you could see that a lot was being built in relation to the new Silk Road development policy. Most of the time, you didn’t see Uyghurs working in this industry, so that locals didn’t have access to the industries that were generating the most wealth in the region. But when you see people working in the cotton fields, for example, they are only Uyghurs. I felt that the Uyghurs didn’t have access to the activities that were basically bringing wealth to the people.
It reminds me one of images of the south in the United States where black people were slaves in the cotton fields or then after the Civil War when they were liberated, they were being exploited as cheap labor and kept in a segregated state. They could not evolve economically and be a part of the overall economic system. That was definitely a striking image that I had when I was in Xinjiang about this economic segregation. When I went to Xinjiang 2016 and 2017, it felt like a place under martial law with the police and military everywhere.
When I went back in 2019, it was like the whole region had turned into an open-air prison, with even more surveillance cameras everywhere. A lot of Uyghur homes were completely locked and looked like they were lifeless. There was even more military and police checking people everywhere. Doing anything in your everyday life, like going to a bazaar or supermarket, [entailed] going through checkpoints as if you were in an airport, with full body scans, ID checks, and checks of all of your bags. Imagine life when you have to go through this about 10 times a day. It’s horrible. Most of the time the Chinese people didn’t have to go through those checks. They were directed at the Muslim communities.
A Uyghur burial ground in Turpan, encircled by new housing developments, resembles a partly demolished wasteland in September 2019.
RFA: Did you speak with any Han Chinese about the situation in Xinjiang? If so, what were their reactions to your photo and stories about Xinjiang?
Wack: There was a wide spectrum of reactions that I got. Usually when I talked to some of my Han Chinese friends, either in China or in Western countries, they were not aware of the extent of what was going on or that people were being completely reengineered and re-educated and just sent to prison for no reason. I think it was because of the fact that a lot of Chinese only read Chinese news. And even though sometimes they can speak English, they will not read Western media.
The Chinese people that I would meet overseas or my Chinese friends in Europe or in the U.S. would be aware of the situation, believe that it was actually happening, and feel terrible about it. So a lot of my friends actually feel like this, but then there are some who do not believe it. Usually the people that I call my friends are people who are educated, interested in the world, and read news, and know how to discern the difference between proper news and propaganda. But sometimes I would run into Chinese people overseas who believe that this was Western propaganda and was not happening. I would say that the Chinese in China were not aware of it, but that in 2021 they are aware that there is news in the Western media saying that, but they do not believe it.
I think a lot of people in China are self-censoring because they're afraid in some way, and they might believe what is happening, but they do not want to discuss it with a foreigner because of the level of surveillance in China. They do not want to speak about these issues because it would put them in danger. When I was in Xinjiang, I would have loved to have interviewed Uyghurs about their lives under this kind of regime and repression, but I could not do this because I was followed most of the time, and I knew that if I talked to any Uyghurs, I would put them in danger.
Uyghurs wait in line for an identification check and body search before entering Hotan’s bazaar in February 2019.
RFA: Why do you think that Chinese netizens responded with anger to your images of Xinjiang and Uyghurs on Kodak’s Instagram page?
Wack: Because I think they truly believe that this is propaganda and fake news. I don’t know if those people were trolls working for the government or just people who were voicing their honest opinion. The internet sphere is a political area where China is becoming more nationalistic, and that was something that I felt while I was in China. This is fueled by the official propaganda and government-controlled media that feeds the people this kind of nationalistic narrative all the time.
And I think that the people believe it, and that they truly believed that that what I was saying in my text in the Instagram post by Kodak was fake and that I was trying to benefit from that situation to make money to sell my book, and that I was being dishonest. A lot of those people who are not working for the government and are not part of the propaganda actually believe in the nationalist propaganda and believe that I’m working for a Western agenda against China, which is not the case.
Uyghur men walk down a street in January 2019 in the old part of Kashgar near the Idkah mosque.
RFA: After Kodak’s Instagram page incident, many comments appeared in which netizens accused you of supporting terrorists or bad people in Xinjiang.
Wack: No, I’m not supporting any terrorists or bad guys. I’m a documentary photographer. My agenda when I was doing this work in the Uyghur region was not political. I was going there to document. I was going there to tell the story of a region and its people and the geopolitical role of that region within China and its international ambitions. I was there to also tell about the situation of the Turkic minorities who are being segregated and repressed. I was trying to tell a story of the region and how it was changing. I didn't expect that this project would become so political, but it did just by documenting this kind of topic. Then it went into the political realm, but that was absolutely not my ambition, and I didn’t have any agenda to support anyone.
A Uyghur man looks from his doorway onto the Turpan Depression - the lowest point in China at 154 meters below sea level - and the dessicated remains of Ayding Lake inside it. The man is the caretaker for the site and lives here year round, mostly by himself, and receives food and water on a weekly basis.
RFA: When you became aware of Kodak’s decision to remove your images, what did you think?
Wack: I was very disappointed. I think this was the feeling of many people in the community because as a historical player in documentary photography, Kodak and its products have helped documentarians for many decades. And now to see it censor itself and censor photography to not make Chinese netizens or the Chinese government angry or to lose market share in the Chinese market was something that was really appalling. I have to also say that having been in China for so long, I understand the situation that all those multinational companies are in.
The Chinese market is so important for them that they can’t afford to be canceled out. In a globalized world, China has become so powerful, and all those multinational companies and their markets depend on China. So, all those economic actors now are in a difficult situation. Western countries, and of course, the French, German, and U.S. governments, want to stand by their values and say that they should promote democracy and not repress people. But they’ve become dependent on China and the Chinese economy for supplies and sales, so they’re stuck in some way, and that is the problem now.
Reported by Kurban Niyaz from RFA’s Uyghur Service. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.
“Dust” covers four years of work by photographer Patrick Wack in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.
Reported by Kurban Niyaz from RFA’s Uyghur Service. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.