Uyghur photographer battles stereotypes with fascinating portraits

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Uyghur photographer wants to dispel stereotypes about Xinjiang.

The Chinese province has become associated with Islamic terrorism.

Kurbanjan Samat has taken more than 500 portraits.

He hopes to reflect the real lives of people from the province.

CNN  — 

Kurbanjan Samat, a 32-year-old Uyghur photographer, wants to dispel the stereotypes he says many Chinese hold about people from his home region – an ethnically diverse province in China’s far west.

He traveled to more than 20 cities to interview and photograph more than 500 people as part of a photography project called “I’m from Xinjiang” that aims to bridge the gap between China’s Han majority and the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs at a time of heightened tensions between the two groups.

Following the conviction of Uyghur extremists for a number of violent attacks in the past year, Samat told CNN that many Chinese outside Xinjiang increasingly associate the province with terrorism.

“The idea occurred to me to tell the real life stories of people from Xinjiang… and show that people from Xinjiang are no different from others,” he said.

A new book will showcase 100 of his best portraits.

They include Nefise Nehmat, a Shanghai-based Uyghur lawyer, who is now studying for a master’s degree in comparative law at a U.S. university and Zhang Zhiqiang, a Han Chinese adopted by a Uyghur family, who runs a mobile phone business and has converted to Islam.

The subjects are shown in a variety of settings – an office cubicle, praying, in a radio studio and at home, which Samat hopes will dispel a common perception that people from Xinjiang only run kebab stalls or restaurants.

Most of the people he approached were willing to have their portraits taken, but some balked at the last minute.

Samat, who is based in Beijing and started taking photos in middle school, says he, like other Uyghurs, has faced discrimination, particularly after knife-wielding assailants killed 31 people at train station in Kunming earlier this year – an attack Chinese media referred to as the country’s 9/11.

“During those days, I couldn’t even get a cab because I have a face typical of Xinjiang people,” he said.

READ: Four found guilty of railway station knife attacks

Samat doesn’t expect his book to bring any significant changes but he hopes it will encourage others to understand the people from Xinjiang they encounter in their daily life. Ultimately, he says, he did the project “not for Uyghurs, not for Xinjiang,” but for himself.

“If I don’t do this, the labels they put on Xinjiang people will be put on me. I don’t want to be labeled.”

READ: 12 face execution for deadly July attacks

CNN’s Zhang Dayu reported from Beijing, Katie Hunt wrote from Hong Kong.