Nearly three times the size of France, and taking up around one sixth of China’s total area, Xinjiang is a vast expanse of harsh desert, broken up sporadically by small cities, towns and industrial settlements. Once the first leg of the Silk Road, an ancient trading route that stretched from China, through Central Asia and into Europe, it has long been a place of important material and cultural exchange. Annexed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, it consequently became an autonomous region. Though occupied by a range of minority ethnic groups, it is predominantly home to the Uyghurs, who are a Turkic Muslim people that make up 45% of the population and are generally considered indigenous to the land.
However, following the PRC’s ongoing relocation of large numbers of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) to the region, as well as hardline policies implemented by the government to culturally assimilate Muslim minorities, Xinjiang has suffered much civil unrest. With the recent introduction of “vocational training centres”, in which a million Uyghurs have been detained for the purpose of “reeducation”, the persecution of minorities has intensified. The situation has been further exacerbated by China’s new trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is a modern reimagining of the Silk Road that is set to reshape the world’s economy and bring the country unparalleled growth. Though a big step for the country, it’s unlikely to benefit the Uyghur community, and will serve to encourage increased sinicisation and persecution of the group, as part of the communist party’s vision for a greater China.
It is amidst this atmosphere of oppression that French photographer Patrick Wack found himself in Xinjiang making his new series. “I moved to Berlin in 2017, following an 11-year stint in China to hone my photographic practice, but I wanted to return to capture a less-documented part of the country,” he says. Titled Out West, this new body of work focuses on the geopolitical ramifications of China’s economic push, and the effects it has had on the Uighur people in Xinjiang. Taking its name from the English translation of Xinjiang, meaning “new frontier”, Patrick documents the region through the lens of manifest destiny and “romanticised notions” of American expansionism.
“I started out with these ideas of romance, but it became clear after some time that this vast and beautiful region was an open-air jail to its local minorities, who are being increasingly persecuted by the Chinese authorities,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Like in the American conquest of the West, Xinjiang is going through an accelerated phase of settler colonialism.”
Dividing Xinjiang into four areas, Patrick ventured to each, to cover all aspects of the region. He made his way across the Taklamakan desert, along the Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russian borders, and through the Tianshan mountains into Qinghai and Gansu provinces. He also spent a lot of time in the oil fields of Karamay and in cities such as Urumqi, Hotan, Turpan and Kashgar. “Xinjiang is a massive piece of land and has a wide variety of landscapes and minorities which makes it a fascinating subject for photographic documentation,” he says of his journey and findings.
The resulting photographs are testament to his dedicated search for the people and places of Xinjiang. There is desolation to be found in the figures sleeping rough below bridges, the crumbling murals surrounded by rubble and the barren landscapes that show little signs of life. Yet there is also a strange beauty in the solitary forms seen in fields, city squares and rugged terrain, and the silent panoramas bathed in soft glows or overshadowed by moody skies. His subjects are young and old, presenting the viewer with classic scenes of idle teenagers and the pensive stares of aged subjects.
But Out West is more than just documentary photography; it is also a personal narrative and “a journey of what it means to strive, and for what.” In searching for this, Patrick says he wanted the work “to be as much a reflection of the Xinjiang region as it was of my emotional state.” He fully embraces the melancholy in the images, and engages with the inherent desire for introspection catalysed by the “vast limitlessness” of Xinjiang’s brutal yet alluring landscapes. By doing so, Patrick strikes a balance in the series, presenting photographs that are as full of beauty as they are with despair.
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