Photographing Xinjiang: An Interview with Maxime Matthys

Maxime Matthys is a Belgian-born visual artist and photographer. His work often explores the impact of technology on our everyday lives, seeking to make the invisible visible. In March, he travelled to Xinjiang in north-west China to pursue a project on mass surveillance, “re-education camps,” and the widespread human-rights abuses taking place in the region. Maxime spoke to Artinfo about his time in Xinjiang and his experiences as an artist of the restrictions in an area where freedom of expression is repressed. 

Can you give us your account of what is happening in Xinjiang? 

The situation is comparable to what happened in Tibet a few years ago, except it’s happening now, in 2019, in Xinjiang. The Chinese government wants to transform the local population so that it’s 100 percent Han Chinese [China’s majority ethnic group] and they are wiping out an entire culture in the process. The Xinjiang region borders eight different countries and is the last area in China to be inhabited by a large number of ethnic minorities — principally Uyghurs and Kazakhs. The Chinese government began by targeting the Uyghurs and that then developed into everyone in the area who wasn’t 100 percent Han Chinese. Given that these ethnic minority groups represent more than 50 percent of the population in Xinjiang, the Han Chinese are technically in the minority. But that’s now changing, because — as was the case in Tibet — they are sending Han Chinese people to the region, helping them get loans, housing, free accommodation — precisely because they want to repopulate the area. 

A further reason is that they are currently developing the New Silk Road — the trade route for socioeconomic transfer with Europe — and they want total control of the infrastructure that runs through Xinjiang. There are also lots of natural resources that China wants to get their hands on.  

So that’s the political context. The techniques used by the government disregard human rights altogether. They use technology and the famous “camps” that more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been sent to. Originally, the government denied the existence of the camps. Then, there were lots of investigations by Chinese citizen journalists who revealed what was happening. Now, the official position from Beijing is that the camps do exist, but that they are “re-education camps.” There are propaganda videos — well, it’s the Chinese press, so it’s basically propaganda — where the camps are depicted as schools, where the Uyghurs are learning how to do their accounts, and the same sorts of things you learn when you do a business degree here. They say that these ethnic minorities are not very cultivated, and they are helping them to integrate better into a more future-orientated Chinese society. 

That’s the official reason. What’s really happening is that people are tortured, locked up in poor conditions, and drugged. They spend several months, sometimes years there — it’s like being in prison, except there is psychological pressure and political indoctrination where they’re forced to repeat speeches by Xi Jinping, to say they love China and all of that. So that’s the extreme end of what’s happening. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is using technology to track the everyday lives of these people in an unprecedented fashion — much like what Orwell wrote in “1984.” It’s unavoidable, continuous surveillance. There are hundreds of thousands of cameras in the streets which use the most up-to-date technology — after all, China is the world leader in surveillance technology. This area is so deprived of human rights that they test out all their new technologies there before deploying it elsewhere in China. It’s like a war zone; there are police checkpoints and controls everywhere. Everything works through facial recognition — when you go into a shop, you have to go past a scan that registers your face and the time when you were there. There are cities where, when you buy a knife, there is a CAPTCHA code on it which is directly linked to your name, so they know whether you have a knife or not. The Chinese government uses the excuse that the area has a high rate of terrorism — they think this reason will resonate with the West. They say that these people are dangerous and they should be watched all the time. 

Maxime Matthys, “2091: The Ministry of Privacy,” 2019. © Maxime Matthys.  

The situation in Xinjiang has attracted significant media attention outside of China. Presumably the Chinese government does not welcome foreign press in the region?

No. I spent three weeks in China. The first week I was in Shanghai and I wanted to get a sense of the risk I was taking by going to Xinjiang, so I met Simon Leplâtre who is Le Monde’s Chinese correspondent. He told me that he had met journalists who had been stopped before they’d even left the airport. I didn’t have a problem in this sense because I had a tourist visa. But the press is not at all welcome.

What were your expectations when you travelled there and what did you hope to do? 

I went there to do a project on the camps, because, for me, it’s completely extraordinary that we find ourselves back in a situation almost as dark as what we saw during World War 2. It’s not quite that extreme, but people are tortured and some have died in these camps. I wanted to take a more artistic approach than simply photographing the camps themselves. A photo of a camp is a photo of a camp and it’s not really telling a story. I wanted to combine photographs and archive documentation to talk about the Uyghurs and other minorities who have disappeared in the camps, using a more aesthetic and creative approach.

I knew there wouldn’t be a single tourist in those areas. I’m two meters tall and blond, so I wanted to play on the idea of being a clueless tourist who had accidentally gotten lost near the camps and taken some photos. I quickly realized this would be impossible. From the first day, I was stopped by the police, even though I was taking completely innocuous photos. In seven days, I was stopped seven times. Their strategy was to stop me from working where I wanted to work. 

So I went to Kashgar in far-west Xinjiang, which is one of the last cities that still has a sense of Uyghur or Kazakh identity, even if it’s quite minimal. There is an official tourist area in the city — an old town that the Chinese authorities destroyed several years ago and then rebuilt, mimicking the Uyghur culture. I was followed by cameras and police, so they knew where I was, and while I stayed in this part everything was fine. They knew I wasn’t talking to anyone and had no compromising information. The area was like a theater — everything was set up to give the illusion all was well and the people were happy. You see Uyghurs in the street, chopping wood, making sculptures, as they must have done 150 years ago — except that modern Uyghur society doesn’t do that anymore! They were staging this kind of ethnographic time-warp so tourists would be captivated. As soon as I was out of these areas, it was disastrous. I was followed continuously by two, sometimes five police officers in civilian clothing. In the final days, all the surveillance cameras turned to follow me when I walked past, which was quite traumatizing.

Was that because of facial recognition?

Yes, exactly. The first couple of days, I knew that they had already clocked me, that they thought I probably wasn’t there just as a tourist and that I was there in some kind of journalistic capacity. In the beginning, the cameras — which can all move, because they’re the most up-to-date cameras on the market — were all immobile and it was fairly discreet. Likewise, the police officers who were watching me kept their distance. In the following days, it became straightforward intimidation. The police came much closer, there were more of them; they slept in a room opposite mine at my hotel, they woke me up in the night to interrogate me. On top of that, the cameras started turning to track me. So it was psychological intimidation, it was a way of saying, “look at the technology we have, look how much stronger we are than you, clear off!” It came to a head on the sixth day when I was ejected from the area. I got the full works — the city police, regional police, military, and five or six official vehicles. They were convinced I was a journalist, and told me that given I only had a tourist visa I could potentially go to prison and would have to leave that afternoon. 

Did they take an interest in the photos you’d taken? 

Of course. At each stop-off point they’d look at the photos. I had to hand over my camera and they deleted the ones they weren’t happy with. They deleted every photo that showed a surveillance camera — even if the camera was a tiny dot in the background, they would still get rid of it. Whereas they didn’t care at all about images where you could clearly see the misery of the Uyghur people. Millions of Uyghurs have been sent to these camps, so there is this awful, pervasive sense of sadness. 

Given all the restrictions, how did you then depict what you saw in the photographs you produced? 

I had to put aside my original project to take photos of the camps. I didn’t completely abandon it, because I did manage to take a train that went past 20 or so camps. The government had been careful to build the camps away from the passing train lines, but I spent seven hours on the train taking photos of the surrounding landscapes. What interested me was this notion of territory and the landscapes that these people could potentially see before they arrived at the camps. 

Then, I had another idea: I wanted to show just how effective and intrusive this facial recognition technology really is — how it destroys the slightest hope of a private life. This technology is not just in the streets, but also in all the shops, hotels, taxis — three per taxi, one for the driver, one for the passengers, and one showing the road ahead. It’s everywhere. What’s particularly unsettling is that all of these cameras are connected and centralized by the police. 

So I wanted to talk about this surveillance, which is ubiquitous and completely unavoidable, in the full knowledge that I couldn’t take any pictures of the police, the barriers or the cameras without being stopped immediately. I also wanted to pay homage to this culture that is powerful and beautiful and will likely vanish entirely in four or five years’ time. The idea was to create a project that would depict the way these ethnic minority groups live, what their daily lives look like, as well as how the government watches them 24/7. 

I decided to use a piece of software I had developed in France for a previous project, in collaboration with a French IT engineer, William Attache. It’s very similar to the facial recognition software used in these surveillance cameras. The idea came to me to combine the documentary aspect of photographing the everyday lives of these people with the technology I’d previously developed, to show these two dimensions together. So, during the day I took photos — “street photos” — of these people’s day-to-day lives, and at night I uploaded the images into the software which automatically recognized the faces and then drew their facial data onto the photos using various different technologies. The resulting photos were quite startling. 

How did these experiences make you reflect on the descriptive dimension of photojournalism and the capacity of art to go beyond that? 

A purely photojournalistic approach doesn’t really inspire me anymore. I experimented with it, but it quickly left me feeling frustrated. I find it’s more interesting to allow the viewer to try and make sense of what they are looking at, rather than giving them raw information that doesn’t prompt reflection but just elicits emotion. I think it’s much more powerful when emotion is born out of a longer thought process engendered by a work. We live in a society that is saturated by crude, simple images. The brain gets used to disregarding these images, because we are overwhelmed by their ubiquity. 

I could have done a series of photos with loads of surveillance cameras, but you wouldn’t see the people who are persecuted by these cameras, you wouldn’t see the situation they’re living in, and you wouldn’t see what’s going on inside the cameras themselves. In the project I developed, you get an impression of what’s going on in the camera’s algorithms — so you’re seeing that usually invisible dimension — and you’re also seeing the people who are directly affected. The fact that the government made things so difficult for me, that I had so little room for maneuver, made me realize that it was the right way — and, after all, the only way — to tell a story like this. 

As a Western photographer, your work will probably speak to a predominantly Western audience. Do you know of photographers from the region who have tried to explore the subject either through a photojournalistic or an artistic approach? 

When travelling to a country that I don’t know very well, with my own background, skin color, and Western perspective, it’s important that my approach is a meaningful one. If a Chinese photographer can do it better than me, I’m not going to do it. China is classed as the worst country for press freedom and you see it all the time with great artists like Ai Weiwei, who has been the victim of horrendous repression. To draw an analogy: I was stopped seven times, and, to be brutally honest, I think a Chinese photographer would’ve vanished after the second arrest. So it’s impossible for a Chinese photographer to work on this. Or, they’d have to do it in a very creative, artistic way, and, once they’d published, to leave the country. Foreigners are more or less protected by their foreign status — they won’t put a foreigner in prison as readily as a Chinese person. I suppose that means that I felt it was legitimate to go to this country that I didn’t know and show what was happening there.

Do you sense that the human rights abuses going on in the Xinjiang region has had an impact on the way the West trades with China, or on diplomatic relations between countries? 

Not at all. It’s so depressing. The Chinese government is stripping these minority groups of their culture and their cultural identity. It’s a cultural genocide. The international community is aware of this, Western countries know about it, we’re happy to denounce it — but so far nothing has been set up to do anything about it. 

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.