Between 2016 and 2019 Wack traveled in and out of Xinjiang, China to document life in the far-flung Chinese province. What he found was the facade of a tourist mecca trading on a fantasy of what the region is, while beneath lies the truth of repression, cultural erasure, and a case for genocide.
French Photographer Patrick Wack, co-founder of the photo-cooperative Inland, came to photography, and China’s far west, via a rather indirect route. “As a child and teenager photography was indirectly part of my life through my father who was the GM of Picto Montparnasse, a leading historical photo lab in Paris. There were photo books at home, and we would go to exhibitions quite often. My father also picked up photography while at Picto and that’s his camera I started using in my very early twenties starting to document the world around me.”
While in university, Wack studied economics and foreign languages. After finishing his studies, he did an internship and then a short-term job at Berlin-based music software company Ableton, working on their marketing and communications. All the while Wack continued as a hobby photographer, teaching himself the craft as he went as his passion for the medium continued to grow. But when presented with two options as to where his life would take him, he had to make a choice.
“They offered me a steady job and I had a vision of my life working in the office from that point onwards. That scared me, I wanted to keep discovering and travelling the world. At that time a friend of mine, also a self-taught photographer who went to business school, had settled the year before in Shanghai and was trying to make it there as a freelance photographer. I decided to follow his tracks, packed my bags and booked a ticket to Shanghai.”
In 2016, after ten years in China, Wack was searching for a new project to work on that would not fall into the trope of stereotypical photographs and the corresponding narrative about the development of China and the industrious rise of the eastern parts of the country.
“I was looking for a region within China that would visually tap into the Chinese unknown. I was also looking for a topic that would allow me to draw parallels with my own emotions and universal concepts. Xinjiang came into mind as it is – or rather was – a cultural and visual otherness within modern-day China. It was also the start of the new silk road policy in which the region would play a pivotal role. I also had long conversations with my friend Dane Keane, a professor at NYU Shanghai, who was teaching a creative writing class in which he compared the American conquest of the west to the current Chinese push to the west. I thought this was fascinating and I was gone.”
The deserts and mountains of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as it is officially named, in the far northwest of China are far from the green scenery and futuristic looking cities of the eastern areas of China. The region is home to large numbers of various ethnic groups that have little in common with the Han Chinese who make up the majority of the population in the rest of China. These groups include the Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim minority group with their roots in Central Asia. Over the course of their history, the Uyghurs have both ruled and been ruled over by various groups. The Qing Dynasty first brought the Uyghurs under Chinese control. With the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 their lands’ position as part of greater China was sealed.
Ethnic Han Chinese began to move to Xinjiang in larger numbers starting in the 1970’s, as they sought economic opportunities and Beijing relaxed residency permits. It was also a way for Beijing to increase their control in the area, and to further dilute the influences of the local ethnic populations in the process. In the 1990’s, a separatist movement rose in Xinjiang, resulting in violence clashes in the area between the Han and the Uyghurs in the early 2000’s. Beijing blamed the Uyghurs for the violence, and in turn began a security crackdown in the region to further reign them in.
Since 2014, that crackdown escalated as Beijing worked to exert even more control over the region. Under President Xi Jinping it has become truly sinister. Several countries, the United States included, have accused China of genocide over their actions taken against the Uyghurs. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International agree. Estimates suggest at least 1.5 million Uyghurs and other ethnic groups from the region are now in internment camps for reeducation in Xinjiang. Some sent to the camps just disappear, with no contact with their families. Stories of torture are rampant, and forced labor is also practiced. Some women tell of having been forced to have abortions, while others report forced sterilizations. Children have also been removed from their parents. Practicing the Muslim faith has basically been outlawed, and mosques have been destroyed. On top of it all, China has built one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance systems in order to watch everything that happens in the area.
“The emergence of Xinjiang as a major domestic tourist destination is the reason I called the region a two-fold dystopia. Imagine a region filled with reeducation camps dedicated to eradicating the Turkic and Muslim identity of millions of people while hundreds of millions of Chinese tourists flock to the very same region to be entertained by a monetized and exoticized simulacre of that same culture. The camps being sometimes just a few kilometers apart from the tourist sites.”
The surveillance state that exists in Xinjiang, and the large police force that now roams the area, keep tabs on who is there, what is happening, and attempt to enforce control over the news and photographs that make their way out of Xinjiang to the world at large.
“I don’t think I was followed in 2016/2017 and could pretty much travel freely throughout the region although it was already pretty much full of check-points. Things had changed radically when I came back in 2019, the place felt like an open-air prison, the police and army presence had been multiplied, CCTVs and checkpoints ubiquitous. On those two trips I was closely followed for maybe two thirds of my time there but they were all local police, nothing more. On a regular basis I would be asked to show my images and on several occasions asked to delete a lot of them, which I didn’t mind as I had two cards in the camera and deleting only the jpgs.”
China also has a history of downplaying and denying what is going on in Xinjiang and attempting to pressure companies and other foreign states to follow their demands on censoring news from the area. This past July, a photograph of Wack’s was published on the Instagram feed of Kodak. Kodak then deleted it citing that it would “respect the Chinese government and Chinese law.”
“The Kodak episode is symptomatic of the self-censorship a lot of companies and institutions – in China obviously but also now in Western liberal democracies – will apply to themselves. The Chinese government and Chinese customers have now made clear that they would systematically punish those who dare go against into its nationalistic narrative. Most large companies now have business in China whether as a market or part of its supply chain and many cannot afford to lose that market. I think Kodak deleting my post was very disappointing but the following statement they issued was just appalling and strategically retarded, they pissed off even more people! That said, I understand they are in a tricky situation.”
Wack is hopeful that he will be able to return to China and Xinjiang and continue his work in the region, but is not sure if it will be possible after the press surrounding the Kodak incident and the publication of his book.
“I hope to go back but I have no idea if that will be possible after the book and the Kodakgate. For several years though my images were used to illustrate press publications on the situation in Xinjiang and every time a major one would come out, I thought my visa might not get renewed, but it always was.”
By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.
Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.
Wack’s book on Xinjiang Dust, is to be published by Andre Frere Editions in October and can be purchased here.