Wild Pigeon • Carolyn Drake • Magnum Photos

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Wild Pigeon

North American photographer Carolyn Drake takes an Uyghur approach to storytelling to capture this displaced community living in a remote Chinese province

Carolyn Drake

Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon A flock of pigeons circle in the air above homes in a Uyghur farming village on the desert's edge near Hotan. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. 2008. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is a remote province, 2,000 miles from Beijing. I visited many times between 2007 and 2013, staying in Uyghur villages and cities on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The landscape changed on each visit – historic Uyghur neighborhoods were being torn down and rebuilt as modern Chinese cities, a result of government development policy. Uyghurs moved from houses with shaded courtyards into apartments, and more and more Han Chinese filled the streets, drawn by jobs in schools, construction, and companies extracting natural resources from the land. In 2009, there were riots in the capital of the province, Urumqi, and hundreds of people died. Uyghurs were not permitted to speak with the press.


Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon Apartment complex built for Uyghurs displaced from their homes and businesses as the Old Town in Kashgar was torn down. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. 2009. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon Homes in the Old Town were built along winding alleyways. Rectangular bricks signify the road dead ends, octagon bricks mean theres an outlet. Homes were built of brick, wood and mud. Tunnels and i (...)

The political barricade between the people I was trying to connect with and me began to seem impenetrable. Uyghurs, who carry on extended conversations with foreigners, risk police interrogation, and foreign journalists are routinely followed and thwarted.

Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon Mutton is sliced from the bone to make traditional dishes cooked over a fire at a Uyghur food stall at the bazaar in Hotan. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. 2007. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon A Uyghur taxi driver waits for customers in front of a kebab stall at the night market in Kashgar. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. 2008. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

Meanwhile, some Uyghurs are opposed to artwork (including photography) depicting living creatures, since only Allah has the power to give life. I began to look for meaning at the intersection of our views and find ways to bring the people I was meeting into the creative process.

Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon A Uyghur street vendor by the entrance to a highway in the Uyghur district of Urumqi. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. 2008. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

Traveling with a box of prints, a pair of scissors, colored pencils, and a sketchbook, I asked willing collaborators to draw on, reassemble, and use their own tools on my photographs.

Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon After sacrificing a camel with his ten siblings for Kurban in Hotan. Translation of the inscription: “Faithfulness. Life is only one time. Everyone has to remember their faith.” Xinjiang Uyghur Aut (...)

Looking for inspiration in Uyghur approaches to storytelling, I also collected Uyghur music and literature.

Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon Uyghur laborers string electric lines across Taklamakan Desert, part of the Chinese government’s effort to develop its western frontier, a province that borders 8 countries and represents a fifth o (...)

Among the works that stood out was Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin. An allegory of the Uyghur experience, it circulated widely after its publication in 2004, but it was met with disapproval by Chinese authorities. Yasin was sentenced to ten years in prison for “inciting separatism.” He is one among many who have been imprisoned under this charge. Yasin’s status today is unknown.  –  Carolyn Drake

Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon A portrait of boys praying in Istanbul is displayed in the home of a wealthy Uyghur family in Yining. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. 2008. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon Uyghur disco in Hotan that has since been shut down. Uyghur and Chinese social spaces are mostly segregated in Xinjiang, and many Uyghur venues have been closed by government mandates. Xinjiang Uyg (...)
Carolyn Drake China. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Yining. 2008. A portrait of a husband and wife in a Uyghur home in Yining, a sensitive border region near Kazakhstan. Most Uyghurs have been displaced from (...)
Carolyn Drake | Wild Pigeon Aynur (moonlight) naps in the Uyghur restaurant where she worked in Hotan before her mother asked her to quit and return to the village where she grew up. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. (...)