A strange planet many, many light years away

Interview with Theo, organized and written by Yi Xiaocuo

Photographer Theo Santana has walked the earth freely but never encountered the level of security checks and surveillance like in China’s Xinjiang. He shared these photos online at the end of 2018, including his bizarre experiences such as Chinese policeman installing tracking software onto his phone as well as having to report his identity even when eating at a village restaurant.

Through Theo’s lens, we see in great detail what anthropologist Ann Stoler describes a “[ruination]… persists in material debris, in ruined landscape, and through the social ruination of people’s lives.” To many locals and exiled people who bear witness to this present day, Xinjiang has become a strange, desolate planet where they themselves have become aliens: mosques are either emptied or demolished; debris of consumption and desire litter the land and water, while the machinery of modernization occupies the center of focus; elders and children seem to be the only ones spared—albeit temporarily—underneath a murderous atmosphere; the strangers who claim to be “relatives” come to your homes and wear your culture as if they own it, but also put handcuffs on you and make you disappear.

A police walks up to an empty mosque
This is an otherworldly image, almost like a storm trooper on patrol on one of the empire’s colonial outposts
Rebecca Onion writes in her political history of barbed wire for Slate: “[F]armers and ranchers interested in buying knew that they could keep Native Americans, black people, children, beasts owned by others, and poor people out with the new invention.” In this Uyghur village, barbed wire becomes the first thing one sees rather than mosques or neighbor’s houses. They have become prisoners of the state.
A Uyghur woman holding a child
A graveyard of used cars
Uyghur women in the courtyard
Sinopec machines extracting natural resources
Ethnic Han tourists taking a picture wearing Uyghur stage dancing costumes. This kind of dress up photography is included in many Xinjiang tourism packages. Placed in the context of today’s human rights violations targeting Uyghur and Kazakh people in Xinjiang, a similar equivalence in the western wold would be like white people doing “black face” or wearing Native American head dresses at parties. However, due to ignorance and Han Chauvinism, this kind of behavior is still popular and Chinese nationalism has made it difficult to call this out.
A Uyghur old man in front of a “Peasant Family Happiness” tourist site

Many, many light years away, in a place that we call home, now there is a strange planet filled with industrial plants, plastic bodies, and imperial troopers.

Shared with the photographer’s permission (Sep 14, 2019).