by Rebecca Horne

Published on 03/02/ 2015
Photographer Carolyn Drake’s newest book, Wild Pigeon, is a departure from traditional photojournalism. Created in the far western province of Xinjiang Uyghur in the People’s Republic of China, the book is in part an informal collaboration created in a time of extreme change and duress. “I asked willing collaborators to draw on, reassemble, and use their own tools on my work,” explains Drake. “The collages and drawings they made are the product of our exchange, in all their roughness, ambiguity and risk.” As Sean O’Hagan noted in the Guardian, “The book may yet become a lyrical elegy for a way of life that held sway for centuries, but could pass into memory in just a few years.”

Perched at the margin of the vast Taklamakan desert in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, between Asia and the Middle east, between modernity and antiquity, from the edge of waking consciousness, where dreams slip in.

Like letters from another world, the images in Carolyn Drake’s photography book Wild Pigeon are stamped with visions, talismans and yearning. They come from the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group perched at the margin of the vast Taklamakan desert in the rain shadow of the Himalayas – between Asia and the Middle East, between modernity and antiquity, from the edge of waking consciousness, where dreams slip in.

As the title of the book suggests, the symbol of the bird seems be a good one for the Uyghurs–the bird passes between two worlds–earth and sky, and also captivity and freedom. The short story Wild Pigeon by Nurmuhemmet Yasin, a Uyghur author, is reprinted in Drake’s book in full. Drake explains: “An allegory of the Uyghur experience, Wild Pigeon circulated widely after its publication in the Kashgar Literature Journal in 2004, but it was met with disapproval by Chinese authorities. Yasin was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘inciting separatism.’” His prison term officially ended this year, but inquiries about him remain unanswered, and it is unclear if he is still living. These words came to us at a cost, and we should not forget it.

Through her desire to learn and to find inspiration in Uyghur culture, Drake has become a de facto archivist of an ancient culture under threat, collecting literature, folklore and music. Pulling objects from the rubble of the demolished old town, she photographed them one by one, wreathed in dust. Originally arriving in China’s far-western province, Xinjaing, in 2007 on a backpacking trip, she returned after receiving the Lang-Taylor prize with the writer Ilan Greenberg to continue photographing there. She returned to the region over a period of seven years.

During this time, Drake saw the Chinese government flatten traditional neighborhoods in the Uyghur cities of Kashgar, Hotan, and Urumqi, among others. The old towns were maze-like groupings of unique two-story Uyghur homes, with ornately carved balconies and colorful interiors. Life was lived out around courtyards open to the sky for cooking, gardening, and drying laundry. Women sat together in front of their homes, sewing and talking to neighbors. The old-town’s passageways could be navigated by cues from the paving stones; octagons meant the passage went through, and rectangle bricks indicated dead ends.

“The underlying theme I heard when talking to people was that how you interpret things is how they will be, so its best to look at the bright side of things. You don’t mention bad dreams, or you try to interpret them in a positive way. People told me dreams about drowning in a river, picking fruit, burning flags, speaking to ancestors.”

In a pattern repeated throughout the province, the old towns in Uyghur cities were demolished, replaced with modern apartment blocks rising high over wide asphalt avenues. This resulted not only in the loss of Uyghur homes, but also large swaths of the mosques, markets and stores that made the old towns self-sustaining.

As the Chinese government continue to aggressively exploit the oil-rich region, and encourage Han Chinese to move to the area, the Uyghurs face more restrictions, both cultural and economic. Uyghurs who observe Ramadan, play music or speak to foreigners may face heavily armed Chinese militias or interrogation. In 2009, a Uyghur student-organized protest resulted in riots. This lead to mass arrests and disappearances and more restrictions including curfew and the cutting off of the internet and phone lines. After the 2009 riots, it became even more risky for Uyghurs to communicate with journalists.

Because of these barriers to communication, and because Drake wondered how photographs from her viewpoint could adequately represent Uyghur culture, it no longer seemed adequate to simply take pictures. Instead, she found a way to collaborate by inviting Uyghurs to share dreams or express themselves by physically marking her photographs, a process that created meaning at the intersection of cultures and cultural change. A blacksmith burned the surface of a photograph with sparks from his wheel, women embroidered on them, and children practiced their letters. Men drew horses in the sky, often creating borderless or disorienting spaces within the photographs.

Drake explained that because it is risky for Uyghurs to communicate with foreigners, or to do anything the government might perceive as disloyal, she “started asking people about what they dreamt the night before. I thought it might be a way to learn something about people’s inner lives without them having to tell me directly.” In this process she discovered a culture of dream interpretation among Uyghurs. There is a set of beliefs about dream interpretation, Drake says, “The underlying theme I heard when talking to people was that how you interpret things is how they will be, so it’s best to look at the bright side of things. You don’t mention bad dreams, or you try to interpret them in a positive way. People told me dreams about drowning in a river, picking fruit, burning flags, speaking to ancestors.” In Nurmuhemmet Yasin’s allegory, the mother interprets a dream that contains a prophecy of destruction of heritage and the environment that is now proving to be true.

On the back cover of Wild Pigeon, you can read an interview with a Uyghur grandfather. Recorded during a time when Drake was making frequent audio recordings as a part of her culture gathering, it was only when the interviews were translated later that she discovered what her translator was saying. The interview is a reflection of how complicated the exchange is, rather than another sensationalized victimization story.

Although the dialogue is oblique partly because of the constraints on communication, it also raises the question of translation and the tricky subtleties of cultural meaning. The imperfect translation is also a metaphor for the problems of using photography to tell another person’s story–the difficulty of fully translating one reality into another.

Interpreter: Let’s share this food. Brother Abliz, please share this with me. I can’t finish it by myself.

Grandfather: Can she finish hers? You can ask her about it. We don’t understand her language, but you know it well.

Neighbor: It’s a difficult language.

Grandfather: It has been difficult for her to find some people like us, right?

Interpreter: Yes. Is that enough or too little?

Photographer: Ah, that’s enough.

Interpreter: If that’s not enough, I can just take some.

Photographer: No, that’s enough. Believe me, it’s plenty.

Interpreter: Sure?

Photographer: Yes.

Grandfather: Tell her to eat until she is full. She should eat until she is full here, so she doesn’t need to have another meal in the bazaar. Abduweli, please sit close to the table, son. Does she have parents?

Interpreter: She does, she has parents. They were asking whether you have parents. Do you have parents? Do you have mom and dad?

Photographer: Apa ana bar. (Yes, I have parents.)

Grandfather: Okay good. Good. You haven’t forgotten this place, right? You came here again. You still remember it.

Photographer: Tell him I have very fond memories of this place and especially listening to his music.

Interpreter: She said she had a really good time here and really enjoyed this place. She was really happy when she came here the last time, so she remembered this place well. She said she couldn’t forget about your music, she kept remembering the music that you played for her last time, so she will always remember this place.

Neighbor: Did you play the Duttar for her?

Grandfather: Yes, I did. This is too much for me, my child, please take some out.

Granddaughter: They call the Duttar “music”?

Grandfather: Yes, they do. They call everything music, including Rawap, Duttar. Please give me a spoon.

Interpreter: Please come here, brother, let’s share this food. Brother Ërpan, you can share it with Abduqeyyum. Otherwise we won’t be able to finish.

Grandfather: Is there a driver inside the car?

Interpreter: Yes.

Grandfather: Is he just lying there? Is he there now? We should bring him some food then. He doesn’t have anything to eat there.

(Food is brought to the driver.)

Grandfather: Does she go through Beijing on her way here? Oh, she goes to the embassy. The embassy of America in Beijing will give her a nice letter, right?

Interpreter: Actually they get the letter from Beijing even before they come to China, so when they come, they don’t have to stop in Beijing to take care of things; they can just come here directly. Now she is going to write a book about Uyghur culture, so she is working on it right now.

Son: If she publishes the book, she can make billions of dollars, right?

Interpreter: Yeah.

Daughter-in-law: Did she come alone?

Interpreter: Yes.

Neighbor: Does she take responsibility for her own safety?

Interpreter: We will accompany her.

The interview is a crowded scene that unfolds like a play, where the actors must show and not tell. Throughout we see the kindness and authority of the grandfather, who wants to make sure that everyone, even the unseen driver, has enough to eat. Emphasis on the act of eating and all the aspects of the meal carry along the dialogue. This emphasis seems to say that the conversation (or interview) is not more important than the act of sharing a meal together, an act which will be repeated. We see distance played out: the distance between two cultures, and in the language itself. It is an echo chamber, where we hear the struggle of a stranger attempting to communicate in a foreign culture. The simple words used by the photographer and the rephrasing of her words by the translator–is this the translator’s way of making her statement more favorable in his own language? If so, does it tell us something?

Forgetting, remembering–words relating to memory are repeated in this short conversation. These words seem to hint at an undercurrent of loss–the fear of the continued eradication of the Uyghur language and culture is omnipresent. The question – “Does she have parents?” – underlines the obvious strangeness of the photographer’s presence and mission. Even though the photographer is welcomed, she is singular, pulled from any context, and perhaps it is hard to imagine her origins. When she answers “Apa ana bar,” the grandfather approves, seeing that she has learned Uyghur words, and that above all, she has not forgotten.