Xinjiang, the sprawling westernmost province of China, measures over 1.6 million square kilometers; its landscape plays host to snow-capped mountain ranges, arid deserts, dry grasslands and a scattering of lush oases. In 2016 and 2017, Beijing-based photographer Patrick Wack ventured there to capture the province and its people.
Despite boasting a landscape rich in oil, natural gas, and mineral deposits, Xinjiang has seen little of China’s economic growth. Its population, which consists largely of the indigenous Uighurs, a Sunni-Muslim ethnic group, is plagued by religious persecution and poverty. Similarly to Tibet, the province is an autonomous region of China, but its inhabitants remain closely monitored by the country’s intensely secular government. The recent uncovering of ‘vocational training centers’, where religious minority groups and intellectuals are being involuntarily interned, is one such example of attitudes and actions that have become common in what multiple media outlets have named a “police state”.
Venturing to towns along a border that stretches for seven countries, Wack has captured the emotional disquiet of the province. “What I had not anticipated was the feeling of sadness I sensed everywhere I went; the idea that people and land are trapped in something bigger than them and which they cannot escape,” he told TIME Magazine. Notable amongst the images from the series are those of transportation routes; namely China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a $900 billion dollar reimagination of the ancient Silk Road that once wound its way through the region. These images deftly illustrate the rapid development of the province; but juxtaposed against photographs of the people who live in the remote reaches of Xinjiang, could be read as a prescient warning of things to come.