Bearing Witness to China’s ‘Orwellian Dystopia’
Kodak deleted these images of Xinjiang. We’re reprinting them. Plus, a conversation with the photographer.
Earlier this month, Patrick Wack got a boost any photographer would dream of when Kodak’s Instagram account — 841,000 followers and counting — decided to feature ten photographs from his forthcoming book. It’s called “Dust,” and it chronicles the transformation, over the past half-decade, of the Xinjiang region, the cradle of Uyghur civilization, at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
Then, a few days after Kodak shared the photos, the company deleted them.
It didn’t just delete them. It replaced Wack’s haunting pictures with its corporate logo and a statement that reads, in part: “Kodak’s Instagram page is intended to enable creativity by providing a platform for promoting the medium of film. It is not intended to be a platform for political commentary.” It went on to “apologize for any misunderstanding or offense the post may have caused.”
Instagram is banned in China, so Kodak put out an additional statement on WeChat, a Chinese social-media platform. This one was more abject:
For a long time, Kodak has maintained a good relationship with the Chinese government and has been in close cooperation with various government departments. We will continue to respect the Chinese government and the Chinese law.
We will keep ourselves in check and correct ourselves, taking this as an example of the need for caution.
Kodak’s Instagram faux pas most closely resembles that of Mercedes-Benz, which, in 2018, posted a #MondayMotivation ad on its Instagram account that included a quote from the Dalai Lama: “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” The line sparked an uproar in Beijing, and the German carmaker quickly apologized.
Wack’s images are far more threatening to the CCP. The photographer calls the situation in Xinjiang, in the northwest region of the country, an “Orwellian dystopia.” He would know. He traveled there six times from 2016 to 2019, documenting the province as it became, in his words, “an open-air prison.”
In today’s newsletter, we are proud to reprint Patrick Wack’s stirring images. They are accompanied by a conversation, edited for length and clarity, with him. You can preorder his book here.
Suzy Weiss: You were born in France. What drew you to photographing China?
Patrick Wack: I first went to China in 2006. I had been working in Berlin, but Shanghai was booming and I had a friend who likewise went from being a hobby photographer to a professional there. Plus, I had this romantic idea of going to a faraway place and documenting it. There was a mix of opportunity and trying to be smart about where to go.
You’ve said your project “Out West” started as more of an artistic, visual exercise to show how the development of China’s Western region compared with the conquest of the American West. But that goal shifted when you saw what was happening in Xinjiang to the Uyghurs. What did you see or hear or experience that made you rethink the project?
When Out West wrapped in 2017, I thought I was done. But then, in 2018, the news about concentration camps came out. I felt like I had to update the original project, and I knew I was well-situated to go back and document it. I felt it was my responsibility, too, because I had a permanent work visa in China, not a journalist one. Plus, I can speak Mandarin, and I had lived in the country for ten years.
I wanted to see how much of the repression of the minorities, and the economic segregation, I could capture. For example, the biggest industry in Xinjiang is hydro-carbons, like gas and construction. I didn’t see a single Uyghur person working there. It was all Han Chinese people. The only people you see working in the cotton fields were Uyghur. They are second-class citizens. And they are in a region that is generating so much wealth — but not for them.
So, for my second project, “The Night is Thick,” I had to be more discreet. I couldn't use film because there were so many checkpoints all the time. They would scan my bags and the x-rays would ruin the film. And I knew I was being surveilled. I only had a digital camera and one lens.
You describe your work as a “visual narrative of the region and as a testimony to its abrupt descent into an Orwellian dystopia.” I’d like to know more about that descent. What were some of the most important changes you saw between your first trips to Xinjiang in 2016, and your most recent trip in 2019?
There were two major differences. The first was the increase of the police on the ground. In 2016, it was a highly-surveilled region. By 2019, it had become an open air prison filled with police. The officers are all Uyghur people, and they are checking you all the time. You have to go through a body scan and security, just like when you go through an airport, but whenever you enter any public place at all, like a bazaar or a supermarket.
There’s also the surveillance you can’t see. There are devices that check the content of phones and apps that record everything. And the cameras are absolutely everywhere.
The second major change was in the landscape. The women were not wearing their veils anymore. Any symbol that was Middle Eastern or Muslim had been removed. The mosques were closed or destroyed. You couldn’t hear the call to prayer anymore in the streets.
In 2016, the mosques were filled, especially in the towns in the south of the region, which is the cradle of the Uyghur people.
In 2019, I didn’t see a single person going to the mosque to pray. Some mosques were open, but only as tourist sites. I also saw a gap in the demographics in the region. There were fewer men in their twenties, thirties and forties out in the streets. My impression was that they were in the camps, but it’s hard to know for sure. That’s what I felt. There was tension and weight all around. Something grim.
What is the point of all this watching? What are the Chinese authorities so afraid of?
The government says it’s to make the area safer and to secularize it. It’s true there were a lot of incidents in the past twenty years, and the area needs to be safer, but the whole point is to accelerate something that was already underway: to turn these religious minorities into Chinese people. That policy of forced assimilation is broadening beyond Muslims to Christians, too.
You write about “the weakening pulse” of the Uyghur community. You’ve described pretty brutal treatment over the past five years.
The CCP can’t stand hearing the voice of dissonance. That’s why they’re tightening their grip on Hong Kong. They can’t bear the idea that Hong Kong has a successful democracy in a Chinese society. They can’t stand the idea that Taiwan is a successful country, or that it did a better job of fighting COVID while still remaining democratic.
Xi Jinping can’t handle anything that casts a shadow on the only official religion, which is Communism, or on the reign of the CCP. The goal is to turn everyone into foot soldiers for the new China. To have them bow to the CCP and to Xi Jinping. They don’t want anything to stand in the way of the society they’re trying to create.
A recent Atlantic article by a Uyghur poet who immigrated to the United States notes that religious items like Qurans and prayer mats have turned over to the authorities. The writer described how some Uyghurs kept their books, knowing that the government would destroy them, but when a rumor circulated that the government had a new technology that would be able to detect the contraband, they snuck out in the night to throw their sacred objects down manholes or into the street. Did you witness anything like that while you were there? Describe this air-brushing of Islam. Is the goal to erase any memory of the Muslim experience in China?
I didn’t see people throwing out their books, but I know Chinese officials are sent into peoples’ homes to spy on them and report anything that could show that they are leading a religious or traditional life. Whether they have a Quran or they’re fasting or they aren’t willing to drink alcohol. Any of these things can get you sent to a camp. Receiving a call from abroad or having WhatsApp on your phone can also get you sent to the camps.
The only mosques that are open now are the ancient ones. The regular ones that people would actually use are closed, or they’re being destroyed and turned into parking lots.
I saw burial grounds being destroyed to be turned into new residential developments. They’re trying to erase what it means to be Uyghur.
You told The New York Times that you were limited to landscape photography, in part, because the authorities wouldn’t let you photograph much of anything else. So there’s almost this game that takes place — with you, working inside the narrow parameters established by the Chinese authorities. Can you walk me through that process?
If you have a journalist visa, there are people waiting for you at the airport. You’re followed everywhere, and people will block your lens. Now I hear that photographers are getting a bit more space, but, of course, there’s surveillance everywhere. When I went in 2016, I didn't think I was being followed, but, in 2019, half of the time I had guys waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel, and they would follow me everywhere, whether by car or foot. They were nice, local guys. Sometimes I would have a smoke with them, and they would tell me that the police chief was nervous about me being there.
During that trip, I tried to get more portraits of the people there and the atmosphere. It’s hard, because I can’t talk to anyone, because I don’t want to put them in danger. All of the portraits I took of people happened within one or two minutes. The rest were candid images that I just snapped.
There are an estimated one million Uyghurs being held in detention camps. The stories of those who have made it out are bone chilling. Can you tell us how big of a role the detention centers, and what goes on in them, plays in the local imagination?
I only know what is going on indirectly. I didn’t see it. One of the texts in my book, by Brice Pedroletti, says that people within the community use code language. They’ll say, “My uncle has been sent to school,” which means he is in a re-education camp. There’s a fear not only of putting yourself in danger, but anyone else, too. It’s a complete nightmare.
What is the general impression that Han Chinese people have about Uyghurs, and where do they get that impression? Does the Chinese state use propaganda to shape popular thinking about the Uyghurs?
When I would tell Chinese people, like my neighbors or someone at a restaurant, that I was doing a project in Xinjiang, they would say that I should be careful, that it wasn’t safe, or that my things would be stolen. In the Chinese psyche, it’s like Xinjiang is this faraway place with very different people.
You could hear the same discourse if you were to tell someone in France that you were going to Algeria. There’s some prejudice, but no one would ever say, “Oh, they’re terrorists.” Still, they want to see the landscapes and the mountains, like in Tibet. There’s this love-hate idea, and a romance for it.
I think a lot of Chinese people have no idea what’s going on in Xinjiang. Regular people who don’t speak English and only read Chinese media think the camps are training centers, and that the government is bringing modernity to backwards people so they can integrate into the Chinese dream of this great, modern society where everyone has a car and a flat.
There’s also a push from the government to send people there to eat the food, and watch girls do traditional dance or take a camel ride into the desert. They want people to think it’s stable and safe.
There are busloads of Han Chinese tourists coming in to see this idyllic version of Xinjiang which is just about the folklore. They’re going to theme parks, or ethno-parks, and ten kilometers away you have camps where they are trying to brainwash and annihilate the culture of the Uyghurs. I found it perverse, the two realities of this Potemkin Village version of Xinjiang with what was really happening.
Walk me through Kodak taking down your images. One day, they’re there. The next, they’re not. Did anyone from Kodak notify you in advance? Did they apologize?
When I was trying to promote my book I was emailing some people and posting in some photography Facebook groups. Kodak’s social media manager saw one of my posts, and we started emailing. He made the post on their Instagram, and we messaged a bit, and I thanked him. One or two days later, I reached out again because there was some heat in the comments. We laughed about it, and he said he loved my work and that it was no problem.
The next day, the post was deleted, and the day after that they put out that statement. Apparently, upper management made the decision, because they got scared. I haven't talked to the social media guy since.
When I think about photographing China, I think of one of the most iconic images of the 20th century: the Tank Man photo. I’m curious if you see yourself as an heir to the political photography of modern China that began with the Tiananmen protests.
I don’t think so. I’ve never asked myself that question. My project became more and more political along the way. I had no idea, when I started the project, that it would turn political. It became a political issue, and, because of the position I was in, I felt that I needed to go back, so within that context the work became political.
In my book, I have essays by a few journalists and academics, but none from activists. To make a political book about this, you don’t need to be an activist. Explaining the facts is enough. Telling the truth is enough. It’s a political object because everything with China is political. For example, by saying that the CCP has to honor the One Country Two Systems policy in Hong Kong, you’re saying something political. But it’s just the truth.
In terms of what happened with Kodak, I do think this touched on something emotional for people because Kodak products were used to document all of the changes in the 20th century. When people hear about this issue with Nike or H&M, it’s already part of the global psyche that these are major capitalist multinationals that will use sweatshop labor if it’s cheaper. With Kodak, it’s a bit of a hipster business. There’s a hype about film, but it’s a niche market. I don’t think people were expecting something like this from them.
There is a line of thinking around China that says, ‘You know, it’s bad, but we — America, the West — have our own problems, and we really aren’t in a position to throw stones.’ What do you say to that?
We all realize that European imperialism is horrible. The genocide of Native Americans or in Austrialia is horrible. But you can’t justify a current genocide by saying, ‘Those people have done it before us.’ That’s basically what’s being thrown at me in the comments on my Instagram: that I’m a white supremacist or a colonizer, or a CIA agent. They’re re-using those tropes, and holding up a mirror of past mistakes to say, ‘You should leave us alone.’ But what kind of logic is that?
What’s next for you? Will you try to go back to the region?
My guess is probably that, with what’s happening, I can say goodbye to China. I’ve had images of mine of Xinjiang coming out for the past four or so years, and every time one of them is in a big publication, I think ‘That’s it.’ I’m still hopeful they might renew [my visa]. Now, I’m applying for a journalist visa in Russia, so I hope that doesn't get screwed up. My girlfriend is a Russian photographer in Moscow — plus, Russia is a paradise for a documentary photographer.
I want to do a project on the border between Russia and China. We’re talking a lot these days about a new Cold War, the polarization of the world and the Russia-China dynamic. I think the border is probably where a lot of that will crystallize.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book, ‘Dust’?
I mean, nobody buys photo books. We were planning on doing 1,000 first edition copies, and we might do 1,200. So I don’t think I’ll be informing the masses about Xinjiang. But my ambition was to bring to light Xinjiang. To show how, in five years, everything changed.
China is a country where so many products are manufactured. It’s a country that the whole world has business and diplomatic relations with. And they are trying to re-engineer and disappear a people and their culture. I hope to bring light to this and what kind of a regime this is. We’re seeing history repeat itself in Xinjiang. And the architect is Xi Jinping himself. The main evil is coming directly from him. His life’s goal is to reunite China with Taiwan, but how will that ever happen after what’s been going on in Hong Kong and the broken promise there?
The Uyghurs were promised autonomy, too. It’s supposed to be an autonomous region. But it is an unkept promise, like so many others. These people are just demanding to have their rights respected within their homeland, to not disappear, to have a good job and to keep their language.
Any other thoughts?
I would feel terrible if the Olympics next year were held in Beijing. I am hesitant to draw parallels to the Holocaust, but, with the Olympics, we could draw a parallel with the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I think, if a stance is going to be taken, it should be now.
You may have noticed that this piece was written by another woman named Weiss. Suzy Weiss joins Common Sense from the trenches of the features department of The New York Post. She is also my younger sister and better than me in just about every way. Expect more from her here.
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