Living Otherwise: Buddhist Photography on the New Silk Road

Uyghur Thoughts on Tian Lin's Images

On June 6, 2015 one of Tian Lin’s friends helped him put on an exhibition of his work. It was held in a private coffee shop rather than state sponsored space at the Seven City Blocks art district where government censorship would have prevented the images from being shown. Tian Lin showed over 200 images in slide show set to a Brian Eno soundtrack called “Music for Airports” that several of his Han artist friends had arranged. Around 100 people came. Many artists came, some of them quite famous in the mainstream Chinese contemporary art scene. I invited a young Uyghur migrant named Alimjan* to attend the art event. As is typical in Han-sponsored cultural events, he was the only Uyghur in the audience. After the show, I introduced Alimjan to Tian Lin. Since Alimjan found it difficult to speak Chinese in public and Tian Lin speaks only a bit of conversational Uyghur, it was difficult for them to speak to each other. Instead I and other audience members led the conversation in Chinese. Tian Lin talked for an hour about how he got started with his project and how the lives of the people he has come to know so intimately have changed. Tian Lin talked about how difficult it is for him to prevent Chinese media from putting a “happy face” on the lives of Uyghurs. He spoke about how he does not see himself as a hero, but rather as just a friend and advocate for Uyghur lives. He was deeply uncomfortable showing his work in such a bourgeois environment.

After our conversation I asked Alimjan what he thought about the exchange. He held up his hand and positioned his finger about an inch from his thumb and said:
He is this close to understanding what the situation is really like for Uyghurs. Maybe he is as close as he can get to it. Whenever Han people talk to Uyghurs something always gets a little bit lost in translation. Uyghurs use slightly different words and Han understand what they are saying in slightly different ways. Han people use words like “common people” (laobaixing) and “backward” (huohui) to describe their situation as migrants. Everything gets translated into the language of Chinese society. Actually Uyghurs don’t think like that or talk like that very much. We think in distinctly different ways – we don’t think we are “backward” compared to Chinese society and “common people” makes it seem as though we are all equal. Maybe the way we talk and the way Han people talk have some similarities but they also feel like they have some big differences. What I really like about Tian Lin though is that he doesn’t see himself as some sort of hero. He just has some ideas about how to do something like photography and he does it. He isn’t trying to make a name for himself or do something great. He just wants to see life the way it really is. I really respect that.
Yet although he deeply admired Tian Lin’s personal ethics, Alimjan voiced a common concern that many Uyghurs mentioned in conversations about Tian Lin’s work.

I wonder why all his images make those people look so sad. Actually kids are often happy even when their lives are not so good. Of course their lives are much different from my own life in the countryside. When I was a kid. I went to school every day. I had plans for my future. I felt like a normal kid and really didn’t worry about anything. Everything seemed fine.

Yet as he spoke he also came to realize that the answer to his question about the sadness of the images, was in the precariousness of Uyghur migrant life itself and what it meant to make that experience of life sensible. 

Those kids, the children of “vagabonds” (Uy: musapir), are probably only happy two days out of seven. Their families are probably psychologically broken in some way or another. Either their father is a drunk, or their parents just fight all the time, or their mom was ostracized by the community they came from or something like that. That is why they left the countryside and came to the city in the first place. They are trying to run away from something. But of course they brought the problems they had in the countryside with them to the city. So those kids can never get away from the feelings of anger and fear that they feel all around them. This is why they look sad, I’m guessing. Maybe some of it is also the way Tian Lin takes pictures. He is looking for moments like that.

What Alimjan is pointing us toward is the difficulty in translating the politics of Tian Lin's aesthetics to a broader public. Within the intimate public spheres of Tian Lin’s world and Alimjan’s world, caring for others through bonds of friendship are what keep people feeling politically alive. Yet attempting to frame this through a photographic practice does not necessarily allow the intimacy of living otherwise to circulate outside of the immediate context of image production. Instead images of poverty and otherness can be read as an index of “backwardness” or the tragedy of “abnormality.” They can even be read as evidence of the causes of violence (Uyghur poverty as the result of individual moral failing) rather than the result of structural violence and imposed precariousness. Yet these are chances Tian Lin is willing to take. In the end witnessing creates its own life paths and its own politics, however minor they may be.
*Alimjan is a pseudonym

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