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See It Now: Patrick Wack's Journey Through China's Unseen "New Frontier"

By David Schonauer   Wednesday June 5, 2019


“I wanted to go on a journey,” says Patrick Wack.

That wish, and the hope of showing people a part of China they don't usually see, took the French photographer to China's western Xinjiang region. The area is harsh desert with sporadic small cities and new settlements, and for China, an expanding superpower, it represents a new frontier. The result of Wack's travels is his project "Out West," a travelog that also reveals what China has come to consider its own manifest destiny.

“Nearly three times the size of France, and taking up around one sixth of China’s total area, Xinjiang is a vast expanse,” notes It’s Nice That. “Once the first leg of the Silk Road, an ancient trading route that stretched from China through Central Asia and into Europe, it has long been a place of important material and cultural exchange.”

Xinjiang was annexed by the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and became an autonomous region. It is home to a number of minority groups, mostly the Uyghurs, who are a Turkic Muslim people that make up 45 percent of the population and are generally considered indigenous to the land, notes INT.  China’s ongoing relocation of large numbers of Han Chinese to the region, as well as policies to culturally assimilate Muslim minorities, has brought about civil unrest.

It was into this atmosphere of oppression that Wack, a freelancer based in China until 2017, decided to immerse himself. Wack’s work underscores the ramifications of China’s economic push and the effects it has had on the Uighur people, notes INT.

“Although Wack’s project was not intended to be a historical survey, there are signs in ‘Out West’ – the construction of mega industrial structures and buildings – of something that will eventually have repercussions for the rest of the world,” notes the British Journal of Photography.

Wack titled his work “Out West” because in China’s expansion westward he saw echoes of “the romanticized notion of the American Frontier” and the great push westward there during the 18th and 19th centuries.

“The expansion to the west, the founding myth of the United States, happened while the country was in the process of becoming a power to be taken account of,” Wack notes. “Today, as China is in the process of becoming a superpower, it too has turned to its western horizon.”

Born in Cannes, France, Wack has pushed his own frontiers throughout his life, living in the U.S., Sweden and Germany. He left a job in Berlin and relocated to China in 2006 to pursue a passion for photography. His work has since appeared in Time magazine, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

He returned to Berlin in 2017 but decided to go back to China to document Xinjiang.

His new project “is more than just documentary photography, notes It’s Nice That “[I]t is also a personal narrative and ‘a journey of what it means to strive, and for what.’ In searching for this, Patrick says he wanted the work ‘to be as much a reflection of the Xinjiang region as it was of my emotional state.’”

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