Uygur uses pho­tog­ra­phy to fight Xin­jiang stereo­types

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS - By CHENG LU and WEN CHI­HUA For China Daily

When am­a­teur boxer Kur­ban­jan Sa­mat bought his first cam­era, he started us­ing photos rather than his fists to fight the mis­con­cep­tions in China sur­round­ing peo­ple from the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

“You’re thought of first and fore­most as a bar­be­cue cook, nut­cake ven­dor, thief or ter­ror­ist if you’re from Xin­jiang,” the 33-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher and doc­u­men­tary film­maker said, re­fer­ring to per­cep­tions of peo­ple from the north­west cor­ner of China.

Af­ter sev­eral ter­ror­ism in­ci­dents in Xin­jiang and else­where per­pe­trated by Uygur sep­a­ratists, peo­ple like Sa­mat have joined the gov­ern­ment in want­ing to ad­dress these stereo­types, es­pe­cially with the re­gion’s 60th an­niver­sary fall­ing in Oc­to­ber.

“If you don’t stand up to fight the la­bels, they may fall on your own head sooner or later,” he said. “What hap­pened to He­nan peo­ple 10 years ago (when the province was tagged as the cen­ter of coun­ter­feit cur­rency) is now hap­pen­ing in Xin­jiang. Ap­ply­ing broad la­bels to en­tire groups of peo­ple only re­in­forces ir­ra­tional be­hav­ior.”

Sa­mat has re­leased a col­lec­tion of his photos, I Am From Xin­jiang, which tells the sto­ries of 100 Xin­jiang peo­ple of var­i­ous eth­nic­i­ties and pro­fes­sions across China. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a pos­i­tive re­sponse to the Chi­nese and English ver­sions, trans­la­tions in Ara­bic, Turk­ish and Ja­panese are in the pipeline, and he is also rais­ing money to make the work into a doc­u­men­tary.

“Peo­ple are more or less bi­ased and have a ten­dency to la­bel a cer­tain group af­ter a cer­tain in­ci­dent,” the for­mer boxer said. “The sto­ries I told have noth­ing to do with eth­nic­ity, re­li­gion and re­gion. We’re the same.”

Crit­ics have ar­gued that what is im­pres­sive is not Sa­mat’s im­ages, but the sto­ries be­hind them. Each is ac­com­pa­nied by a bi­og­ra­phy of their sub­ject.

And Sa­mat’s back story is no less in­ter­est­ing. He was born in Hotan pre­fec­ture, which is known for nephrite, a type of soft and warm jade. Yet his char­ac­ter is just the op­po­site, sharp and cool.

His 60-year-old fa­ther, a jade busi­ness­man who had vis­ited in­land cities in the 1980s, un­der­stood the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion and had Sa­mat and his sib­lings change schools three times for a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion.

Even from a young age Sa­mat said he would stand up for his prin­ci­ples, of­ten with vi­o­lence. He be­lieved fists could con­quer all and be­gan learn­ing to box at 16.

His love of pho­tog­ra­phy be­gan “ac­ci­den­tally” in 1999. He was plan­ning to spend his sav­ings on a guitar to charm the girls at school but in­stead be­came cap­ti­vated by a cam­era shop’s dis­play on his way to the guitar store. He went in, bought his first SLR and has been ob­sessed with tak­ing pic­tures of the beau­ti­ful land­scape and di­verse cul­ture in Xin­jiang ever since.

In 2006, he went to Bei­jing in search of a job and a bet­ter life. He met his wife, an eth­nic Uygur born in the Chi­nese cap­i­tal, or­ches­trated a num­ber of award-win­ning photo ex­hi­bi­tions and par­tic­i­pated in the shoot­ing of doc­u­men­tary films. But he said he was trou­bled by one prob­lem — peo­ple’s lack of un­der­stand­ing of Xin­jiang.

At first, the quick-tem­pered film­maker con­tin­ued to use his fists when he heard any­one speak­ing ill of his home. But he said a deadly riot in Urumqi, the re­gional cap­i­tal, on July 5, 2009, left him shocked, and he “came to re­al­ize that fists can’t solve all prob­lems”.

Sev­eral months af­ter the riot, as mis­trust of the peo­ple in Xin­jiang grew, his land­lord kicked him out of his rental apart­ment in Bei­jing. Stand­ing in the street, he was an­gry and help­less. He had no place to go and no friends to turn to.

“Why can’t peo­ple un­der­stand that a few bad ap­ples can­not rep­re­sent all Uygurs, and Uygurs can­not rep­re­sent all of Xin­jiang?” he asked.

In ad­di­tion to 40 per­cent of the re­gional pop­u­la­tion be­ing Han, the largest eth­nic group in China, Xin­jiang is also home to Kazaks, Mon­gols and Ta­jiks.

Sa­mat de­cided then to let his lens do his fight­ing: “Pic­tures and real sto­ries are the most elo­quent way to talk about Xin­jiang.”

The ter­ror­ist at­tack at Kun­ming Rail­way Sta­tion in March last year in­creased his re­solve. He trav­eled to 20 cities to pho­to­graph and in­ter­view about 500 Xin­jiang peo­ple in­clud­ing doc­tors, celebri­ties, street ven­dors and thieves.

In one of the more strik­ing sto­ries, a Uygur thief told him how, at age 9, he was sold by his fa­ther to a mod­ern-day “Fa­gin” in the south­ern city of Guangzhou. His owner beat him on one oc­ca­sion af­ter he took pity on a fe­male vic­tim and gave her back the money he had stolen from her.

“I’m try­ing to make my photo es­say ob­jec­tive, cov­er­ing dif­fer­ent Xin­jiang peo­ple and their sto­ries,” Sa­mat ex­plained. “We’re all Chi­nese no mat­ter where we are from — Xin­jiang, Bei­jing or Guang­dong.”

He said he finds mis­con­cep­tions of Xin­jiang and China in all parts of the world. Last year, he vis­ited the In­done­sian is­land of Bali and a cus­toms of­fi­cer at the air­port ques­tioned his Chi­nese iden­tity based on his Uygur ap­pear­ance.

“The of­fi­cer thought I was from Tur­key, In­dia, Iran or even Mexico, but not China,” he re­calls. “I can’t speak English. The of­fi­cer tried to speak Chi­nese, but it was very bro­ken and I couldn’t un­der­stand him, which he took as ev­i­dence I wasn’t Chi­nese.”

For­tu­nately, a Chi­nese tourist be­hind Sa­mat in the line was ir­ri­tated. “He told the of­fi­cer that China has 56 eth­nic groups with di­verse cul­tures. No sin­gle group alone can rep­re­sent China.”

It is this kind of misun­der­stand­ing that has en­cour­aged Sa­mat to ac­cept in­vi­ta­tions from over­seas Chi­nese stu­dents and aca­demics to give lec­tures at univer­si­ties in the United States, start­ing at Har­vard.

He talked in a round­about way when asked why he thinks he has found suc­cess among the many pro­fes­sion­als to have shot photos and film about Xin­jiang. Some would say his own eth­nic iden­tity makes him stand out, but Sa­mat coun­tered: “I don’t rep­re­sent any group or re­gion. I rep­re­sent my­self.”

One user of Douban, the online so­cial net­work, pointed out that Sa­mat os­ten­si­bly sets out to dis­pense with cul­tural la­bels but re­lies on his own eth­nic­ity and the racial con­tro­versy around his sub­ject mat­ter for suc­cess.

The for­mer boxer ac­cepts some of this crit­i­cism. “When I take pic­tures and shoot videos, I’m try­ing to make my­self bet­ter and un­der­stand the real na­ture of hu­man be­ings,” he said.


Kur­ban­jan Sa­mat fights the mis­con­cep­tions sur­round­ing peo­ple from the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

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