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David Denger

Uighur Identity in Xinjiang

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The Uighurs of Xinjiang are one of 55 minorities in China, but they are ethnically and historically closer to the Muslim Turkic groups of Central Asia.  The Chinese government is trying to cement its hold on the resource rich Xinjiang by suppressing cultural and religious differences in schools and workplaces and by resettling millions of eastern Chinese into the wild western region.

Racism, language requirements and lack of education prevents many young Uighurs from getting contemporary jobs while their traditional roles as traders and farmers have become unprofitable. As Chinese influence increases, Uighurs must adapt to the Chinese way or be left behind economically.

I arrived in Xinjiang about 5 months before the Olympics and spent that time learning the area and making contacts.  There has been a longstanding separatist movement consisting of attacks on police and government buildings.  My plan was to be in Xinjiang during the Olympics in case something broke out.  A few weeks before the Olympics started I was in a rural area near Kazakhstan looking into reports of a torched police station.  While in the small town of San Gong the police picked me and revoked my Visa, kicking me out into Kazakhstan.


David Degner is researching his next project while shooting commercial and journalistic jobs in South Florida.

These photographs will be shown at the Christopher Henry gallery in SoHo in the near future.

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Editor’s note:

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

24 thoughts on “david degner – uighur identity in xinjiang”

  1. I’m confused – how does picture #9 (girl from Chongqing), as well as the other pictures taken outside of Xinjiang, fit in with the whole theme of Uighur identity?

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  3. David, great to see this here. I am reading a book – Shadow of the silk road by Colin Thubron – where this is mentioned, so it is great to see it too.

    No time to comment on your work yet, got to feed the kids and get them tucked up for the night, then I will have a chance to have a good look. But it looks interesting.

    well done


  4. Some very very good photos here, but I see a need for further editing and sequencing in order for it to truly make sense re the intended theme of Uigher identity. Lose the shots of Chinese tourists, bus stations, Mao statues, etc (no matter how good they are) and make it more intimate, just about the Uighers themselves. I realize you are trying to portray the Chinese influence over the Uighers but it doesn’t come off in the photos without having to read extended captions. The one of the Uigher waiter is great though in that regards.

    Anyway, I’m envious as this is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. I’m sure it was a bummer to get the boot as it looks like you were on a roll. Hopefully you can return some day.

  5. Brilliant work, a little long in the edit but overall fantastic. No need to say much more. Loved it and the story needed to be documented. No overt brutality but gives us a better understanding of these people and their culture.



  6. I don’t get a sense of contact between the photographer and the people. More the feel of travel photography to me. I guess I’m getting tired of a B&W world and would like to have seen this in color, to see what the place really looks like.

  7. i agree with jim powers :,,i don’t get a sense of contact between the photographer and the people ,, but…
    some of the photos are very good.

  8. David, well done for being published here and for taking on this work in such an difficult environment. Like others here, I need a much tighter edit – and greater coherence between the narrative storyline and the pictures…. It sounds like your relationship with the authorities was crucial – now there’s a story…!

  9. The essay starts in a very strong and good way, but it somehow looses the power a bit.
    I very much agree with Charles comment. Very well said!!! A tighter edit, too many coaches etc.
    Yet, no doubt, there are some really great shots and the story about the Uighur people is very important to tell. Probably not an easy task.
    Personally I like the black and white images. Just recently I converted my digital colour images from Beijing into black and white and some of them look much better now. Sometimes it is simply too much blue sky, too much of yellow sand or pink letters and turquoise shirts. Maybe I am a bit sick and tired of all this colour overdose… No idea if the images in this essay were shot in B&W on film in the first place? I had my digital files converted into B&W with alienskin. I still love Tri X! Am I a sinner now?
    While looking at the images it was very clear to me that someone from the west has taken the pictures. Shooting in China as a foreigner from a western country is not as easy as it seems. Connecting with people is not easy, even with a big effort we tend to stay strangers and without the language it is even more difficult to connect with the people. Personally I don’t always need this close inside look. I like to observe as well.
    I hope there will be many opportunities to show this work! It certainly deserves to be looked at!
    Well done and maximum respect!

  10. my mind’s selective edit of your work makes me think your eye’s language is uncannily rene burri-esque

    is he someone whose work you admire?

  11. sorry to say Dave, but there’s really nothing about the Uyghurs in here!!
    I do like a few of your photos but they’re all about Han Chinese -and in Han populated cities!
    Only 4, maybe 6 pics of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, that’s it… Talk about Identity!

    Maybe you should change the title, don’t you think?

  12. well done David..

    I could only say I also agree with Charles and his suggestions.

    Enjoy seeing these images in B/W. By the way, is that B/W film or is it digitally done? Just noticed Reimar asked the same question..

    Hope your continuing project goes well.

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  14. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    An excellent piece of work to my eyes. To answer the question above about B&W film or digital – the caption for image 13 should help.
    The lack of “overt brutality” – as someone put it – is sometimes the most brutal of all and in image after image we see the Uighers squeezed out of not only their own community but the images as well. A subtle and devastating essay.

  15. Thanks to everyone for looking, and the BURN people for giving this essay the stage.

    As some of the commenters pointed out, this is definitely a loose edit of more composed images instead of the intimate images of my friends and I. Even after a year I am still playing around with which photos are the most important and tell the best story.

    There are two images in the essay that were shot on a digital camera. But the vast majority were on my trusty Leica and old 35/1.4.

    My next step will be to return to the Middle East, if anyone lives in Cairo we should meet up at Hooraiah’s I’ll buy you a beer at the Stella Bar.

  16. David,

    A book perhaps in the making. It is good.

    I viewed without reading the statement (as is normal for me) and didn’t have to read the statement to enjoy. This (to me) is a worthy achievement. Having read the statement, I can’t say that you’ve achieved your goal but I cannot judge as I do not know the context of what it is that you are trying to get across. However whether the socio-political intimations are achieved or not is not important from a pure photographic enjoyment point of view. And I enjoyed it photographically. Well done.

    I love the photographic style you’ve employed here – black/whites/shadows/highlights/noir/grain or noise. This is something I like very much. In difference to others I find colour can create its own challenges in understanding – to my mind it can be very much different to do colour right.

    Best of luck moving forward. I think expanded (rather than the tighter edit referred to), it would make a good book.

    Cheers and Peace.

  17. The amazing thing is that I can now layout and self publish a book, the impetus is on me.

    I’ll try to do that over the next few months for my friends. If you are interested email me and I’ll keep you updated.

  18. I was very excited when I read the title, being an Uighur myself. And to be very honest, I connected with the photos in a very personal way as I remember a lot of what you’ve shot. I showed my parents, and they too felt that this essay begins to show more to the Uighur situation beyond the riots, beyond the big crackdowns. It paints a picture as to the straws which slowly break the camel’s back.

    I think that where a lot of essays of the Uighurs fall apart is they are solely trying to show Uighur culture. When looked at in isolation, that paints a very pretty picture. A joyous people that love to celebrate, that have a rich culture and history, their own language and ethnic identity.

    But this begins to show how it’s being systematically eroded. How generation by generation Uighur’s lose their language, their religion, their culture. I’m so very glad you’ve posted this up, and would be so happy to see a book out with your stories to go along with it.

    I actually plan to go there again with my trusty old Leica and photograph more of the real and everyday Xinjiang (or East Turkestan).

    Keep up the work, very fond of it.


  19. great! these pictures are moving, moving, moving…!!!

    thank you for sharing them with the universe :-)

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  21. I’ve only had the quickest look but I think this is great and I will definitely be back for a second look when I get home eventually. I am glad to see more rather than less for a change. I love your spare stand back style. Nothing like travel photography to me. Its got that cool modernist feel and I think it works well here. I like the B/W but I think this could be good in colour too.

  22. There are some nice pictures here. But let’s not be dishonest and claim that this series presents a coherent picture of “Uighur identity”. Most of the pictures individually don’t even say much about the Uighur predicament, though I do think photography’s power to say much about anything is incredibly limited and always fails to attain the highest level of objectivity. Xinjiang is indeed an incredible place and the Uighurs occupy a fascinating place within China and the region’s history. Yet, in my view, this as a series doesn’t add up to anything substantial. Not only does it not really move me, it doesn’t say much – as a body of work – to me. I am sure that issues of identity for Uighurs is less complex than most Western sympathisers imply: most do not feel torn between culture and country. Most Uighurs I know and have met (having lived in China for 9 years) loathe the Chinese government and the Han Chinese. Some are politically motivated to change this (some becoming extremists as evidenced in Uighurs found in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban) and some just want to get on and make a living, just like people anywhere. I think Daniel, who says he is Uighur, is romanticising somewhat, as many diasporans do, about the “erosion” of Uighur culture in China. They have a very strong sense of ethnic, religious and cultural identity, despite the Hanification of the education system in Xinjiang. They have not been assimilated, as the Manchus were into the Han culture during the Qing dynasty. If anything, being under the Chinese yoke has made them more fiercely “Uighur”. Islam, as a fundamentally segregationist religion, contributes to this sense of unity. To return to the series here, as I said, there are some nice shots, but overall I cannot see what the connection is between them, not at least visually. I’ve seen so many “stories” on Xinjiang, its hard not to be cynical. For to romanticise an “oppressed ethnic group” does not only have to be done in the way the Han Chinese do — i.e. make them appear happy and colourful and enjoying their lives — it can also be to portray precisely the reverse.

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