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Photographer Kevin Bubriski ’75 returns to campus to lecture on recent book “The Uyghurs: Kashgar before the Catastrophe”

October 13, 2023

Documentary photographer Kevin Bubriski ’75 returned to campus last Thursday to lecture on his lengthy career. While Bubriski has assembled important bodies of work in the United States, he is especially well known for his work in Syria, Tibet, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, where he lived for nine years. Bubriski’s talk focused specifically on his recent book, “The Uyghurs: Kashgar before the Catastrophe,” which features his 1998 photographs of the Uyghur people in the Chinese city of Kashgar before the Chinese government’s perpetration of human rights violations against the Uyghurs in “re-education” and labor camps.

Bubriski began his lecture by reflecting on his return to Bowdoin after graduating 48 years ago. He spoke fondly of late Associate Professor of Art Emeritus and lifelong mentor John McKee. Bubriski said that McKee instilled in him the value of curiosity, recalling one assignment from McKee’s class called “The Edges and Beyond” that informs how Bubriski views photography today.

“We all walked out of the classroom wondering, ‘what are we supposed to do? He didn’t tell us to do a landscape; he didn’t tell us to do a still-life,’” Bubriski said. “What we finally realized is that he was talking about the frame: the edges and beyond. There’s this entire world that goes beyond the specific frame.”

Bubriski’s work is currently featured in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s (BCMA) exhibition “People Watching: Contemporary Photographs since 1965.” BCMA Co-Director Frank Goodyear was thrilled to bring Bubriski to campus to share his work.

“Bubriski is arguably one of the most acclaimed documentary photographers working in the United States today,” Goodyear said. “We love it when we can engage with alums who have gone out and had interesting careers, especially in the visual arts…. Kevin is somebody who is interested in making visible marginalized communities, communities that are under threats or historically persecuted.”

After sharing photographs ranging from his time living in Nepal to his documentation of people watching the events of 9/11 unfold in New York City, Bubriski shifted to discussing his photography of the Uyghur people in Kashgar.

“I became interested in going to the Uyghur world in 1998. They’re an oppressed, Muslim minority; they have no rights; they’re under the thumb of the Chinese government,” Bubriski said. “My reason for going to Kashgar was to be a witness—to see what life looked like there.”

His photographs capture the daily lives of Uyghur people before the decimation of their culture, religion, language and freedom. Bubriski noted that although he photographed the Uyghurs prior to the Chinese government’s crackdown, he nevertheless felt that immense transformation was on its way.

“When I was in Kashgar in 1998, there was a lot of tension and displacement of the original Kashgar Uyghur people already,” Bubriski said in an interview with the Orient. “Many people were talking about how, within a year or so, the railroad would reach Kashgar, so there would be trains able to go from Beijing to Kashgar, which would have a huge impact on Kashgar and on the Uyghurs. I happened to be there only a year or two before that.”

Three years ago, Bubriski returned to his photos of Kashgar after a friend asked him what became of the pictures he had taken over 20 years prior. Then, Bubriski went back to the negatives, scanned them and began editing to create a new work.

The final product of that process, “The Uyghurs: Kashgar before the Catastrophe,” features striking portraits and street scenes in Kashgar alongside prose and poetry written by Kashgar activist and poet Tahir Hamut Izgil. Also included in the book is an essay about the history of the Uyghur people by the late anthropologist Dru Gladney. The work is entirely bi-lingual, written in both English and Uyghur.

“When I first showed these photographs to the two translators and to Tahir, they were taken back to a Kashgar that they knew only in their memory and had, in some ways, forgotten,” Bubriski said. “Photos are a powerful visual documentation of what once was.”

Bubriski hopes that those who read his book or attended his lecture feel more informed about the plight of the Uyghurs and come away with a greater sense of the importance of social engagement, a message that resonated with attendees.

“Bubriski’s photography is special in the sense that it’s a visual history of a people whose culture and lives are being extinguished and hidden by the [Chinese Communist Party], and learning about it is empowering,” Abhi Peddada ’27 said.

Ben Su ’27, who also attended the lecture, echoed Peddada’s sentiment.

“I honestly didn’t know a lot about what was going on in Kashgar, and after attending the lecture and seeing Bubriski’s photographs, I learned a lot and feel much more informed,” Su said.

Goodyear added that Bubriski’s career serves as a reminder of the power that curiosity and direct engagement can have in the face of injustice.

“His work is being collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and the International Center of Photography—he’s built this incredible career. And where did he start? He was just a guy with a camera, and a curiosity to see other cultures,” Goodyear said. “The Chinese government wants to render invisible, if not entirely decimate altogether, this ethnic Muslim population in northwest China. And what Kevin’s work insists on is that we see these people.”


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