2008 Lange-Taylor Prize: Ilan Greenberg and Carolyn Drake, "Becoming Chinese: Uighurs in Cultural Transition"

Saturday, November 1, 2008 - 9:45am

Ilan Greenberg

Carolyn Drake

The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University has awarded the eighteenth Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize to photographer Carolyn Drake and writer Ilan Greenberg, both Americans. The $20,000 award is given annually to encourage collaboration in documentary work in the tradition of acclaimed American photographer Dorothea Lange and writer and social scientist Paul Taylor. Lange and Taylor worked together for many years, most notably on fieldwork that resulted in American Exodus (1941), a seminal work in documentary studies.

Ilan Greenberg and Carolyn Drake’s project, “Becoming Chinese: Uighurs in Cultural Transition,” will investigate the ways in which Uighurs negotiate ways of being under the Chinese government’s strict anti-Uighur policies. Uighurs are Muslim, speak a Turkic language closely related to Uzbek, and live primarily in rural, subsistence communities. About 10 million Uighurs live in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region; another 300,000, in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

“Xinjiang was briefly an independent state prior to World War II before collapsing into Mao’s China, and Uighurs continue to aspire to cultural and political autonomy, and at times to independence,” write Drake and Greenberg. “Since the late 1980s, however, China has sent millions of migrants into Xinjiang in an effort to populate the country’s west with loyal Chinese. Uighurs are now a minority in Xinjiang; expressions of Uighur culture such as Uighur-language media and repositories of Uighur ethnic identity such as the mosque are severely constrained. Uighurs are under intensive pressure to shed their ethnic identity and assimilate into the larger Han culture.”

Greenberg and Drake propose “to document the nodes of the Uighur network: the truck stops, livestock markets, secondary schools, and county offices where Uighurs connect with each other, sometimes furtively.” Through their characters, they “will tell a story of Uighurs negotiating a path forward, those who obstruct, circumgyrate, or submit to the state’s program of Uighur cultural disappearance.”

As a team they will work almost entirely in tandem, spending their time in the “same tea houses, classrooms, Uighur-language bookshops, back-store card games, profiling the same characters—the interviews, conversations, and images informing each other’s work.” They will also cross the border into Kazakhstan, where “Uighurs enjoy a greater degree of cultural autonomy (although not a political one). This contrast will be part of the story.”

Of their collaboration, Greenberg and Drake say, “We want to create a composition that reads and looks like a sort of Uighur cultural topography of the moment. . . . Our intent is to construct a narrative of pictures and mediated interviews—integrated into an essay both mediative and heavily reported—that hew to a story arc. While our document is not cinematic in approach, the director Robert Altman’s technique of folding unrelated yet connecting storylines into each other provides inspiration. . . . As photographer and as writer our joint aim is to illuminate the same narrative idea, to capture how Uighurs conspire to pass on their constrained cultural identity. Our images and words are meant to find ignition at the same point of contact, not simply to illustrate the other.”

Carolyn Drake is a freelance photographer based in Istanbul. Images from her documentary project on Turkmenistan were included in Photo District News Photo Annual 2008 for Best Personal Work. Drake was a Fulbright fellow in Ukraine, and she has won awards from World Press Photo, POYi, the National Press Photographers Association, the Society for News Design, and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2006, she was chosen as one of PDN’s 30. Her photographs have appeared in the Walrus, the New York Times, Hotshoe, National Geographic, Newsweek, GEO, the Fader, and Gourmet.

Ilan Greenberg is currently a Fellow of the Asia Society and a freelance essayist and journalist in New York. From 2005 to 2007 he was the Central Asia correspondent for the New York Times, and before that he wrote from the former Soviet Union, mostly about Central Asia, for publications including the New York Times Magazine, Slate, Travel & Leisure, and the Wall Street Journal. A feature on Turkmenistan for the New York Times Magazine was cited for honorary mention in The Best American Travel Writing for 2004. Greenberg has received a Knight International Journalism Fellowship and a Ruhr Grant from the University of Dortmund and the Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism.