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.
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.
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.
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.
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.