Xinjiang – China’s vast far western province – has changed drastically since I began photographing Uyghurs there in 2007. Traditionally living in agricultural villages and trading towns on the edges of the Taklimakan Desert, many Uyghurs have been forced off of their land and out of their courtyard homes into grim urban housing projects. They are displaced by millions of Han workers migrating west from the Chinese interior as government policy aggressively tightens its grip on this province which occupies one fifth of China’s territory and borders several newly independent, Islamic leaning countries. While Uyghurs continue to aspire to cultural and political autonomy, their language and way of life are transforming.
Ive been drawn back over and over. The attraction comes partly from a sense that these changes ought to be viewed from more perspectives, especially ones that consider Uyghur interests. Its also a personal attraction to the desert landscape, communal culture, frantic streetlife, and hospitality.
Feeling the limits of my own viewpoint, I began to look for materials other than my own photos. I learned about the significance of dreams in Islam and asked people to describe their own remembered dreams. I asked people to leave messages in my journal. I picked up objects left in the dust of demolition, photographing them out of context, later. And I made prints of my own photos, asking people to draw their own pictures on top of them or cut them apart and reassemble them. I also recorded interviews with the few who were willing to take the risk. The project has become a collage of these disparate elements, my attempt to acknowledge the problems inherent in telling someone else’s story, and to give up some of my own control over it, without giving up altogether.