inframe in frame xinjiang china west outwest patrick wack valentine zeler kalel koven documentary photography contemporary photographer medium format large format chinese landscape

Interview Patrick Wack

Can you explain your series about the Xinjiang region?
Out West is a travel-driven documentary project about the far-western Chinese province of Xinjiang, which until recently was a territory of cultural, religious, and visual otherness with respect to the rest of modern-day China. I spent two months in the region in 2016 and 2017, mostly on the road, trying to make sense photographically of a region more than twice the size of France and home of many different minorities, most of them of Central-Asian ancestry and Muslim confession.

Why did you want to document this region? How did you start this photography project and how long have you been documenting the situation?
The starting point was my desire to work in a region of China that did not look like China. I wanted to convey images that would shake the established visual stereotypes of the Chinese world.
The rationale for the project came from a romantic intent. After almost ten years in China, I had grown very disillusioned with the evolution of the country and wanted to create a poetic series that would combine some of my personal emotional baggage with a given geographical entity within the country. I wanted the project to be as much canvas for my relationship with China as documentation of it.
« When I first set out for this project, it was heavily emotionally-driven »
I spent quite a bit of time in the US and had, since early on, this romantic obsession with the open road, the vast expanses of land, and the supposed freedom that comes with « going west ». So when I first set out for this project, it was heavily emotionally-driven. Then, upon arriving in Xinjiang, I hit a wall and soon realized how different reality was there. In 2018, one year after I had closed the « Out West » project, news started appearing of reeducation camps being set up in the region for Muslims of mostly the Uyghur and Kazakh minorities. That’s why I decided to go back to start « The Night Is Thick » project there and spent one month in the province in 2019.
In these landscapes and portraits, one feels as lost in two worlds, gradually overturned by colonization in progress. Why did you choose to show the region from this angle?
This was as much a choice as a necessity. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to draw a parallel between the American conquest of the West and the current Hanification (the massive influx of Han-Chinese people and of Chinese political influence) of Xinjiang. I knew there was some kind of correlation there that could be interesting to document photographically. But I first intended that in a romantically adventurous way, like the one you could see in old cowboy movies: the search for new opportunities for oneself and one’s family, happy settlers, etc. In that sense, Xinjiang is very different from the American West. 
So along the way, there was a shift in my narrative. From glorious-looking landscapes, I went to incorporating more portraits and life scenes to make it more documentary but always trying to maintain a sense of unease and discomfort. I wanted the viewer to be attracted by the beauty of this place like I was, but also to feel the grim reality unfolding there. And which became even grimer the following years… 
« I have a paradoxical relationship with solitude… »
We can feel some personal story connected to this work, especially in the approach you have to these places where there is a strong feeling of loneliness. What is your relationship with this region? Has it changed over time?
First of all, Xinjiang has a very low human density as fifty percent of its surface is made of the Taklamakan desert. For an area twice the size of France, there are only twenty-two million people and the vast majority of them live in a few cities. So once you hit the road, you’re faced with a big empty space. But I’m happy you detected a sense of loneliness in the images. I have a paradoxical relationship with solitude as this is something I crave but that I’m also afraid of. I definitely tried to inject that in the work and in some way I’d like to see it as a metaphor of the fate of the Uyghur community, trapped in their own land with no other escape than to slowly fade away. The more I photographed the more I made the intentional decision to restrict my compositions to the very minimal in order to convey that sense of bareness and loneliness.
You have chosen a particular colorimetry that somehow plunges us into another world. Why did you choose this treatment? What was your photographic process?
The project was shot on medium-format negative like most of my personal projects. The look of my images can vary depending on the project and its setting. In that case, the desaturated tones seemed to be appropriate considering the rationale of the project.
Will you continue to document the evolution of this region? And if not, at what moment did you say you had enough to close the series?
For Out West, I divided the province into four areas and went on a two-week trip to each of these four areas, over the course of 18 months. This was my framework from the start. After completing the four trips, many edits, submitting the project to editors and reviewers, it felt like I had gathered enough images to feed a somewhat cohesive narrative.

But when news of the camps in the region emerged, I felt like the project had in some way become less relevant, and having this relationship with the region, I felt obliged to go back and produce a more classical documentary project, that’s when « The Night Is Thick » was born. It felt like Out West was all of a sudden too contemplative and distant from the reality of the region. So my work there was somehow never over, I just had to give it another form to keep working.

Do you have any particular photograph that can describe the series? What’s its story?
I think the image of the blindfolded Kazakh warrior works well here. He and his horse have a defying posture but both of them are entangled in this red cloth, the symbol speaks for itself. I took that photograph in one of these grim ethno-amusement parks where minorities can showcase a sanitised version of their local folklore to busloads of Chinese tourists. Soon this is all that will be left of thousands of years of cultural heritage.

« I need to feel some anchor to reality in some way; and some cohesive visual poetry underlying all of it »

What is your inspiration for this work ? And in general?

I have a very wide range of interest in photography but a common denominator would be the documentary approach, be it in portraiture, landscape photography, street or conflict photography. I need to feel some anchor to reality in some way; and some cohesive visual poetry underlying all of it. For Out West, as I wanted to have a more distant approach, I started out shooting mostly landscapes and I think the book « The Long River » by Nadav Kander had a major influence on me.

It covered so perfectly the range of my emotions towards China, the never-ending scale of the landscapes, the spleen and feeling of separation that the economic boom had generated among people, but also portrayed so well the resilience of the whole nation through the unstoppable flow of the Yangtze.

Additionally, the fact that a complete stranger to the country had been able in just five trips to visually summarise it so well empowered me to start Out West. I think I also started to understand and to be influenced by the works of American landscape artists like Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld and their Chinese modern counterparts like Zhang Kechun or Zhang Xiao.

What is the next for you ? Future ideas of project ? 
I’ve been working on a project in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2019 and I’m still hoping to be able to finish it this year. The project is a photographic study of the country 25 years after the end of the civil war that tore it apart. Regarding the future, these are uncertain times for many of us now. I’m not quite sure what my next step will be.

Your top 5 photobooks?
« The Long River » by Nadav Kander
« Hustlers » by Philip-Lorca diCorcia
« Café Lehmitz » by Anders Petersen
« Phantom Shanghai » by Greg Girard
« Chinese Interiors » by Robert van der Hilst

Interview by Valentine Zeler
Photographer’s Links: WebsiteInstagramMember of Inland Stories