Patrick Wack’s Out West

Xinjiang, an administrative district on the western border of China, is seven times the size of the UK. The ancient Silk Road ran through this vast area, which is now home to dozens of minority ethnic and cultural groups scattered throughout the 10 per cent of the region that is habitable. Shanghai-based French photographer Patrick Wack spent several months in this remote area of a country that had been his base for 10 years.

“First and foremost,” he explains, “I wanted to go on a journey, and I wanted it to address China without looking like the China that people usually get to see.” The country that he presents is, on one hand, industrially modern, with huge machinery plants and gas fields with lines of nodding donkey pumps stretching towards infinity. On the other, we see expansive rural landscapes and working lives; in one photo, there is
a crude, wooden crucifix in the foreground, unusual 
for a mainly Buddhist and officially atheist country.

The English translation of Xinjiang – New Frontier – led Wack to “borrow the romanticised notion of the American Frontier”; that great push west by colonial settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. This figurative link to US history came to underpin his project, hinted at by its title, Out West. “The expansion to the west, the founding myth of the United States, happened while the country was in the process of becoming a power to be taken account of,” Wack explains. “Today, as China is in the process of becoming a superpower, it too has turned to its western horizon.”

May 2016. Xinjiang province, China. View of road G314 in China, aka the Karakoram highway, the road linking the western Chinese province of Xinjiang with Pakistan through the Pamir mountains. On the right is the Baishahu lake. A new road should be finished by 2017 to increase trade between the two countries. © Patrick Wack
June 2016. Xinjiang province, China. On the road back from Turpan, a mostly Uighur oasis town, to Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, we stop for a rest and see these two young Uighur men taking a nap under a bridge while the summer heat is reaching its peak around mid-day. © Patrick Wack

Although Wack’s project was not intended to be
a historical survey, there are signs in Out West – the construction of mega industrial structures and buildings – of something that will eventually have repercussions for the rest of the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping has invested $900billion in the Silk Road Economic Belt, an infrastructure network to link China with central Europe and reopen the ancient Silk Road trading route. To this end, the government has been detaining and corralling Uyghur Muslims in a forced sinicisation – the acceptance of Han Chinese culture – which falls under the UN definition of crimes against humanity.

Wack is conscious of the issues at play: “I felt nothing equalled the beauty of the region so much as the infinite sadness you feel when you are there. Everywhere you go, the atmosphere is heavy because people feel trapped. 
I hope the series conveys that dual feeling of beauty and anxiety in some way.”

This article was originally published in issue #7882 of British Journal of Photography magazine. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here

December 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Half constructed and decaying palace hotel in the new development zone of the city of Turpan in Xinjiang. © Patrick Wack
June 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Uighur man looking through the door of his house into the Turpan depression and Ayding lake. Ayding lake is a dried up lake in the Turpan Depression, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.. At 154 m below sea level, it is the lowest point in China. This lake is now totally dried, and very muddy and salty. This man is the guardian of the site and lives here all year long, mostly by himself with his two camels and one donkey, receiving food and water on a weekly basis. © Patrick Wack
December 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Old Han Chinese man photographed in the bedroom of his house. He is the guardian of a mine in the Taklmakan desert in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. © Patrick Wack
May 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Travellers getting on and off the train to Hotan at the Kashgar railway station. This is the only railway linking the oasis towns south of the Taklamakan desert where most of Xinjiang’s Uighur community in Xinjiang lives. © Patrick Wack
May 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Ruins of the old city of Kashgar, mostly destroyed by the Chinese authorities in order to build a new version of this ancient silk road city. After the destruction of Kabul during the civil war, the old city of Kashgar was the only remaining ancient town of the silk road. © Patrick Wack
June 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Blindfolded statue of a Kazakh warrior on the road from Turpan back to Urumqi. © Patrick Wack