Rare access to China’s restive far west

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Photographer Raphael Fournier visited the oil-rich Xinjiang province of western China

The region has experienced cultural tensions and unrest

CNN  — 

Understanding a person means understanding the surrounding context, which is why Raphael Fournier captures both with his camera lens.

“When I take pictures I am intending to document peoples’ lives in connection with their environment,” Fournier said. “I am often fascinated by people – they are my very first focus – and then I like to show them inside of their privacy.”

This creative trend continues in “Around Taklamakan,” a series from China’s Xinjiang province. The Taklamakan Desert is located in the region and helped nearby towns thrive many centuries ago as merchants formed routes around it. Fournier’s photographs emphasize the cultural tensions there, a factor of special importance for Xinjiang’s citizens.

In one photograph – No. 9 in the gallery above – the modernized section of Kashgar stands in the distance as a young woman moves through the historic side of the city. The bright lights that loom in the distance present the incoming cultures in contrast to the ancient area.

Photographer Raphael Fournier

In another photo, a sheep lies dead in the street. It was killed “halal,” a way permissible by Islam. Muslims are the religious majority in the region, but a minority in greater China.

Both pictures highlight factors that have caused unrest in Xinjiang. The province was contested among Mongols and Turkic groups before coming under Chinese rule in the 18th century. It has grown more prized since, as the region is rich in oil and minerals.

Recently, the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs of the province have protested Chinese rule as they become a minority group to the immigrating Han Chinese. These immigrants are coming for jobs and bring traditional Chinese culture with them from the east.

The Chinese government has allegedly issued restrictions on practicing Islam in Xinjiang, causing unrest among the Uyghurs.

Detailing the oppression has proven difficult. Journalists are rarely granted access to the territory. This fact caught Fournier’s attention.

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    “Stories produced in the area are not common,” he said. “So I felt like going there and checking it out myself.”

    One afternoon in the city of Aksu, Fournier was arrested because police suspected him to be a journalist. Fournier had been photographing a military tank in the main square. Police searched his belongings, unable to prove his motive for taking pictures. After being transported outside the city, he was asked to delete the photographs of the tank.

    Photography has not always been Fournier’s passion. While “Around Taklamakan” was photographed in March, he first visited Xinjiang in 2002. Arriving as a French language teacher, Fournier became especially interested in photography after interning for Time magazine’s photo department in Hong Kong in 2008.

    He has since traveled to the Middle East, where he photographed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, protests in Taksim Square and Syrian refugees in Turkey.

    “I got really lucky because during that year I spent in Turkey, the Taksim events happened and I was able to cover it entirely,” he said.

    While he resides in Paris, Fournier still feels a strong connection to China and Turkey. He remains motivated to visually tell the stories of marginalized populations.

    “I believe my job has to be about putting the light on unfair or tricky situations in which people need exposition,” he said.

    Raphael Fournier is a French photographer. He is represented by Divergence and Sipa USA. You can follow him on Facebook.