Changing minds through Xinjiang portraits

Kurbanjan Samat: "The subjects I photograph are all ordinary people from Xinjiang"

"I've met hundreds of people in more than 20 cities in China," Kurbanjan Samat explained. "My subjects' stories keep me going."

Uighur photographer Kurbanjan works tirelessly to repaint the image of his home region, Xinjiang, in the minds of many Chinese people.

To show that Xinjiang has more than fruit vendors and pickpockets, Kurbanjan started a photo project last December called I'm From Xinjiang.

It now includes more than 100 portraits of people from Xinjiang, with their ethnicities and occupations.

Occupying a vast land in China's remote north-west, Xinjiang is home to many ethnic minorities including the biggest among them, Uighurs, who are Muslim.

Photograph of Parhat Alimjan.

I'm Parhat Alimjan. I'm a Uighur from Xinjiang. I'm 27 years old. I have a journalism degree from the Communication University of China. My friends and I have an ethnic rock band called Bilaye. I'm also a guitarist for a reggae band called One Drop. In 2010, I went to perform in North Africa with a bunch of musicians. I was too focused on music, and forgot my personal life. My family wants me to get married soon, so I want to find a girlfriend first.

Photograph of Elik Abdurehim.

I'm Elik Abdurehim. I'm from Xinjiang. I'm Uighur and 61 years old. I opened a restaurant in Urumqi in 1982, right when China was going through the Reform and Opening Up. An inspection team from Beijing came to our bazaar, and really liked the atmosphere there. They talked to the Urumqi government, and moved me and a dozen Xinjiang businessmen to Beijing. I sold fruits and Xinjiang barbecue. The Beijing people loved it. Now my third son is sick with cerebral palsy. We have spent all of our savings. My dream is for him to recover soon. I also want my other children to get a good education, and remember our culture and traditions.

Photo of Nefise Nehemat

I'm Nefise Nehemat. I'm from Xinjiang. I'm Uighur, and I'm 35 years old. I have a one-and-half-year-old son. After graduating from East China University of Political Science and Law in 2008, I've been a lawyer at the Shanghai Jindu Law Office. My childhood dream was to become an altruistic lawyer in China's biggest cities. This year, I started my master's degree at the Emory University in the US. My dream is to become a People's Congress member, and fight for the rights of female ethnic minorities.

Photo of Zhang Zhiqiang

My name is Zhang Zhiqiang. I'm from Xinjiang. I'm Han, and I'm 35 years old. I'm running a mobile phone business in Shenzhen. I turned Muslim when I was doing business in Kazakhstan. I pray five times a day now. My dream this year is to find a Muslim girl to marry.

Photo of Bayirta and Bayin

My name is Bayirta. Bayin is my wife. We are Mongols from Xinjiang. I'm 30 years old this year. I used to be a guitarist and composer for Manishi - the first Tibetan aboriginal band in China. My wife used to be a singer. In 2013, we had a half-month traditional Mongol wedding in Xinjiang's Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture of Bayingolin, and we threw another wedding in a Tibetan restaurant in Beijing. We are hoping to set up our own band this year.

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After violent attacks earlier this year blamed on Uighurs, "Uighur separatists" has become a hated term. Many Chinese find it hard to trust Uighurs and people from Xinjiang in general.

"Just when the first batch of photos was getting some positive reaction on the internet, the Kunming attack happened," Kurbanjan said. "I had to speed up my work."

The mass stabbing at Kunming train station killed 29 people in March. Not long after, explosions in an outdoor market in Xinjiang's capital city, Urumqi, killed another 31.

"I was in pain," Kurbanjan said. "The misunderstanding between our people has deepened, but I don't want the gap to widen. I want to bring us closer."

Since then, Kurbanjan has detailed the pursuits of ordinary Xinjiang people living in big cities across China. From street vendors to movie stars, Kurbanjan hopes their stories touch people's hearts.

"No matter whether they are elite or ordinary people, I put my subjects on the same level," Kurbanjan said.

"Chefs, vendors, white-collar workers; they are all humans. I tell their stories to inspire young people in Xinjiang and to show the rest of China the true colours of our people beyond the TV."

Coming from a humble family in Hotan in western Xinjiang, Kurbanjan understands how far everyone from his region has to work to find success.

When he first arrived in the capital, Beijing, he worked at a barbeque meat stall and traded jade until he found his passion in photography.

"It takes three times more effort for a person from Xinjiang to succeed than others," Kurbanjan said. "My subjects encourage me. I draw energy from their hard work."

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Photo of Memedik Dilkar

My name is Memedik Dilkar. I'm from Xinjiang. I'm Tajik, and I'm 24 years old. My hometown is in the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County in Xinjiang. I was an account manager in Xinjiang after graduating from a junior college in 2012, now I'm getting a degree at the Minzu University of China. I want a bachelor's degree. My dream is to find a good job.

Photograph of Tiliwaldi Sidik and his son

I'm Tiliwaldi Sidik. I'm an Uighur from Xinjiang. I'm 30 years old. After graduating from the University of Xinjiang, I've been teaching Chinese in a local school. I got married in 2008. Now I'm getting a master's degree in Uighur language at the Minzu University of China. My wife has returned to Xinjiang, but my son stays here with me, because there're better schools in Beijing. Although my wife and I have to be apart, it's worth it in the long run.

Photograph of Xawkat Repik

I'm Xawkat Repik. I'm Tatar, and I'm from Xinjiang. I'm 30 years old. I've been a bone surgeon for seven years. I was working in Xinjiang before I got married in 2010. In order to be with my wife who was living in Beijing, I fought for opportunities to work in Beijing. Now I'm a doctor at the Chinese Armed Police Hospital. Many patients from Xinjiang always come to me when they have problems. Some call me as soon as they get to Beijing to ask for directions. It's rare for them to have a doctor who speaks Uighur.

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Now Kurbanjan is compiling his photos into a book. It's nerve-wracking for him to handle everyone's stories without getting caught up in their frustrations.

"I feel the pressure, too. Often my subjects dump their negative emotions on me, and there are vicious messages online," Kurbanjan said.

"But I couldn't care less about the criticism. I want to stay positive."

When the BBC followed Kurbanjan to photograph a subject, he was banned from entering a company because of his ID card, which notes that he is originally from Xinjiang.

Minutes later, another woman from Xinjiang was barred from entering the same building, despite being invited for a job interview.

In the boiling summer heat, Kurbanjan stood there in a daze.

"I would lose my temper if it were a few years ago, but now, I won't. Anger does not change anything," he said.

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