Badlands of Xinjiang2 min read

A photo essay from China’s far west – Patrick Wack


In Chinese, Xinjiang means “new territory.” Chinese officials have been stationed there for millennia, and the region was ruled by the Qing dynasty since the 18th century, before becoming a province of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, but it has always held a different identity on the fringe of China, populated by Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. There’s even a special word, túntián (屯田), for the Han Chinese strategy of making Xinjiang “Chinese” by encouraging Chinese people to live there. It takes a unique person to find desert landscapes beautiful, and not to be overwhelmed by their loneliness.

Maybe it is because the desert is so empty that it allows us room to project our emotions onto it. The empty space is both an invitation and a challenge. In this photography essay, Patrick Wack seeks to capture the wistful, lonely beauty of Xinjiang, the frontier of China. More than cities, jungles or beaches, the desert seems to pose existential questions: infinite, timeless, a vacuum. The fashion shoots that Pat supported himself with in Shanghai, where he was based, suddenly seemed trivial; the desert, a homeland for nomads, became a spiritual homeland for him as well, an antidote to the superficial banality of Shanghai life.

Chinese investment in the region has resulted in the construction of fantasy palaces, but the scale of the landscape makes such buildings look ridiculous. Orientalist poems like Shelley’s Ozymandias jump to mind: the vanity of human ambitions to shape the world mocked. Cranes and trucks try, and manifestly fail, to domesticate the desert. When I look at these images, I feel that I am seeing not just an empty space, but a visual metaphor for the emptiness and transience of human life itself. It is hard to leave a trace in the desert, but Pat’s photographs record human experiences from China’s edge, preserving a moment in time forever. – Jacob Dreyer, from Out West


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This post and Jacob Dreyer’s introduction is adapted from Patrick Wack’s photography series Out West. All images are by Patrick Wack, taken in Xinjiang in 2016 and 2017, and are published with permission.