Uygur uses photography to fight Xinjiang stereotypes
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.