Kodak deletes pictures of Xinjiang, but it’s too late: Bari Weiss’s site publishes them

July 29, 2021 • 11:30 am

Patrick Wack, a photographer, has a book coming out called Dust, which combines essays about Xinjiang with Wack’s own photographs taken in the province between 2016 and 2019. As I’ve reported recently, and you should know already, China is in the process of dismantling the culture of the local Uyghurs (a Muslim people) in Xinjiang, with 1 million out of 6 million Uyghurs living in “reeducation camps”, which involve propaganda, forced labor, and even torture. The entire province is subject to minute scrutiny by China, with cameras everywhere, searches if you go into public places, and apps on phones that record your every click and call. You can be sent to a camp for a minute “infraction”, like getting a telephone call from overseas. Mosques are being destroyed and burial grounds covered with new buildings.

This is much like the takeover of Tibet by the Han Chinese and the destruction of Tibetan culture I sensed when I visited there a few decades ago, all done to assure the hegemony of China’s one true religion: Communism. The tension between the Tibetans and the incoming Han was palpable; often a Tibetan would pull me into a corner and ask me if I had any pictures of the Dalai Lama (these are forbidden).

There’s a really intriguing interview of Wack by Suzy Weiss on Bari Weiss’s site this week, which documents not only the changes Wack has seen over the past few years in Xinjiang, but also the censorship of his photos by Kodak lest they offend the Chinese. Wak’s photos don’t really show obvious repression of the Uyghurs, since Wack is not allowed to depict that, but it hints at it. I’ll show a few of them.

Click on the screenshot to read:

You can see more pictures from the book here.

First, what Kodak did, also documented by the New York Times. Excerpts from the interview are indented.

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. 

What Weis didn’t note, but the NYT did, is this:

In the Kodak post and on his own Instagram account, Mr. Wack described his images as a visual narrative of Xinjiang’s “abrupt descent into an Orwellian dystopia” over the past five years. That did not sit well with Chinese social media users, who often object vociferously to Western criticism of Chinese government policies.

I suppose you could say that, in light of Wack’s statements, Kodak had some justification to remove the pictures, which would surely worsen their relationship with China. But I still see it as cowardly. For Kodak, though, the bottom line counts more than cultural genocide. At any rate, beyond this censorship, Wack has some interesting stuff to say about his trips to Xinjiang and the changes happening as the Han Chinese begin their cultural genocide.

Here are a few photos and Wack’s statements in the interview that characterize them.

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.

November 2016. A young Uyghur seasonal worker in the last days of the cotton harvest in Luntai county, located between Korla and Kuqa, north of the Taklamakan desert.

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.

September 2019. Motorized miniature tanks at a desert-tourism park catering to Han-Chinese tourists.

And the changes:

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.

February 2019. Hotan, Xinjiang province. Locals wait in line for ID check and body searches before entering the local bazaar.

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. 

At the end, Wack questions whether the Olympics should be held in Beijing next year (winter games), comparing them to the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany and adding that, “If a stand is going to be taken, it should be now.” That’s a bit hyperbolic, and of course they won’t cancel the games. But the world needs to know more about what’s going on in Xinjiang.

16 thoughts on “Kodak deletes pictures of Xinjiang, but it’s too late: Bari Weiss’s site publishes them

  1. Kind of similar to N. Korea, only it isn’t N. Korea. Where they have education camps or more properly reeducation camps. The difference between pass and fail is substantial.

  2. Where’s that recent commenter that claimed that all this stuff about China, the Uyghurs, and many other observations were all made up by the West? They claimed that the Chinese and Taiwanese were all just happy campers living the ideal life.

    1. I guess you are talking about me. I am happy to comment on my personal observations on the ground, which happen to be very different from the distorted picture shown by Western media. Again, don’t rely on my words. See what real Uyghur people in China have to say. See what foreigners living in China have to say about real China vs imaginary China depicted by the Western media.

  3. A word of caution to anyone waiting for hordes of Progressive western academics to
    circulate a statement of solidarity with the Uyghurs of Xinjiang: don’t hold your breath.

  4. Though I think the Chinese government is deeply inhumane and should leave the people alone, I detest much of the Islamic ideology as well. So, there’s some ambiguity in my mind between this clash of cultures. Obviously, one can find ways to discourage the worst aspects of religion without resorting to these draconian tactics.

  5. The CCP has a long shadow and I’ve met it. I once tried to criticise the mayhem in Hong Kong to a Chinese work colleague. It didn’t go down to well. This conversation was to cease and change the subject… hmmm it made me deeply suspicious of his presence in a foreign country that had no such rules.
    I remain civil but don’t engage anymore if I can’t have an opinion just quietly… fuck off.

  6. I hope the comparison of China to North Korea is an exaggeration, though China’s behaviour towards the Uyghurs is reprehensible. Also, their religion is not really communism I think—it’s the so-called Communist Party, which abandoned communism pretty much once Mao was gone–not to meet Muhammed, that’s for sure.

  7. As a European living in China, I would like to offer my own observations. I have met many Uyghurs, and none of them has ever heard of concentration camps, forced labor, genocide, dismantling their culture or discrimination directed at them. The vast majority of Uyghurs support the Chinese government and are quite happy with its achievements.
    Daniel Dumbrill, a Canadian living in Shenzhen, went to Xinjiang a few weeks ago to investigate by himself. He tried to find people who knew of anyone having been in one of the educational facilities (which the Western media describes as concentration camps). After several days of asking hundreds of people, he finally found one single person whose relative spent several months in such a camp, and that relative did not even have any negative feeling about the experience, on the contrary it gave him a chance to learn new skills and find a better job.
    From what I can see, Uyghur culture is thriving in China, and the Chinese government has no plan whatsoever to dismantle it. Uyghurs have schools in Uyghur language, TV stations and newspapers in Uyghur language, even religious schools in Uyghur language. All Chinese currency is even written in 5 languages including Uyghur. The first movie to come out in China last year after the pandemic was a Uyghur movie, in Uyghur language (and Chinese subtitles) and with Uyghur actors. It was shown in all movie theaters in China and had great success.
    Honestly, there is no problem for Uyghurs in China. They are well treated, and even have privileges (as all ethnic minorities) compared to Han people, like priority access to universities and government jobs.
    What China really wants to dismantle, and is quite successful doing so, is religious extremism and terrorism. In the past decades, many Muslims in China had been brainwashed by extremist propaganda (facilitated by the US with the goal to destabilize China, as it has been doing in many other places). Tens of thousands of Uyghurs joined the Islamic State and committed abominable crimes in Syria and elsewhere against civilian populations. China itself saw a wave of Islamic terrorism that claimed hundreds of lives (including many Muslims themselves, killed by extremist Muslims). China tackles the problem as its source. Instead of doing like the US (which is bombing and killing), China believes in de-radicalization through education. And it is working. I have seen hundreds of testimonies of former extremists who now practice a peaceful Islam and are well integrated into society. There has not been a single terrorist attack in China in the last 5 years, thanks to the government efforts. Islam itself is thriving in China, but it is a peaceful and tolerant Islam. There is no suppression of religion in China, and definitely no suppression of Islam. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, as long as religion is about peace and self cultivation. Mosques are being built and renovated, with financial support by the Chinese government, which is even organizing charter flights to Mecca for Chinese Muslims.

    1. If one was sceptical and a shade cynical I’d be tempted to think the reasons for the rosie reports from the Uyghurs you have spoken to, is to protect themselves and probably family.
      I accept I could be wrong but not by much.

  8. It would be interesting to see an objective and comprehensive analysis of exactly what threat the Uyghur population poses to the CCP. Beijing would not spend the money and time to build and staff all the camps if they did not perceive a threat, even if imaginary or one that might not be realized for many years.
    I think China’s threshold on what constitutes an actionable threat is very low compared to Western countries, and they are pretty unconcerned about whether people who don’t pose a threat might be swept up in such actions.

    My father-in-law told us that in his camp in the north of China, the CCP deliberately kept the number of available blankets lower than the number of prisoners. In their weakened condition, not having a blanket was a death sentence, and keeping prisoners competing for them was a form of psychological warfare. He never let go of his blanket, and it is in our closet right now.

      1. Just like a western summer camp, the staff like to keep everyone busy with fun activities. But instead of archery and crafts, they got endless formations and roll calls, forced labor, and physical abuse.

  9. I do not think communism is anything to do with it – it is sinification. They want to make everyone Han Chinese. What sort of true communism has billionaires?

  10. Good post! I find it odd that Western lefties, who are usually pro individual rights, turn a blind eye to what China has been doing for many years in Tibet, and is now doing in the Near East. In addition, Australian 60 minutes has been covering Chinese encroachment into (and downright hostile takeovers) of territories in the Pacific, as you can see in this story here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzCqQKnF9Oo

    No one has the backbone to stand up for freedom. China was long held up to be the epitome of “functional socialism.” The problem is that it functions in exactly the same way as the North Korean and Cuban models, which is to restrict info/diaglogue, use force to threaten dissidents, brainwash people, and eliminate ethnic sub-groups and religious minorities. In free countries, diversity is seen as a boon. We can see socialist countries eliminate it immediately so that they have a homogenous, compliant population to rule over.

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