Eastman Kodak has come under fire recently after Instagram users noticed the company had removed a post from its profile that featured photographs depicting the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) of the People’s Republic of China: an area where the current Chinese administration is accused of numerous human rights violations against the Turkic ethnic group.
Kodak, whose Instagram account features the work of photographers from around the globe, shared a gallery of images from French photographer Patrick Wack. The post showcased ten images Wack had captured on recent trips to Xinjiang and linked out to Wack’s own Instagram account, where he had made a recent post promoting his forthcoming ‘DUST’ photo book (from which the images were taken).
In the post (embedded above) promoting ‘DUST,’ Wack, who currently resides in Berlin but lived in China for 11 years, says ‘the region has been at the centre of an international outcry following the mass incarceration of its Uyghur population and other Muslim minorities’ and described the book as ‘a visual narrative of the region and is a testimony to its abrupt descent into an Orwellian dystopia.’
These images and Wack’s descriptions on his own account upset a number of Chinese social media users, prompting Kodak to remove the post and issue an official statement on the matter. Kodaks full statement reads:
‘Content from the photographer Patrick Wack was recently posted on this Instagram page. The content of the post was provided by the photographer and was not authored by Kodak. Kodak’s Instagram page is intended to enable creativity by providing a platform for promoting the medium of film. It is not intended to be a platform for political commentary. The views expressed by Mr. Wack do not represent those of Kodak and are not endorsed by Kodak. We apologize for any misunderstanding or offense the post may have caused.’
Kodak also posted the following on its Chinese WeChat profile, apologizing more specifically to Chinese residents:
‘For a long time, Kodak has maintained a good relationship with the Chinese government and has been in close cooperation with various government departments. We will continue to respect the Chinese government and the Chinese law.’
Kodak still holds clout in the photography world, left over from the days when it was a household brand in film photography. But its significance in the industry has dwindled drastically since the turn of the century, particularly since its 2012 bankruptcy, which saw Kodak’s Image Sensor Solutions division sold off to Truesense Imaging Inc.1 and resulted in nearly all of its remaining photographic assets sold off to Kodak Alaris, which is separate from Eastman Kodak, but shares ownership of the Kodak brand name.
Ariane Kovalevsky, a director of Inland Stories, an international cooperative of 11 documentary photographers which includes Wack, commented: ‘A company working in photography should not have been afraid to take a stand on a project that’s so important for human rights.’ The NYT quotes Wack as saying that he found Kodak’s decision to remove the post ‘notable in part because its products have been used for decades to document political events’, adding ‘So for [Kodak], one of the main actors historically in photography, to say they don’t want to be political is what’s upsetting so many people.’
Wack told the NYT that while the images shared on social media (and in DUST) were captured for their aesthetic nature, there were practical reasons for the selection, too.
The NYT says Wack ‘was heavily surveilled by the authorities during his trips to Xinjiang and would not have been able to photograph arrests, internment camps or other obvious signs of repression.’ Wack is quoted as saying ‘The only thing you can photograph is the grim atmosphere, and the change in the landscape.’ He added:
‘That’s what the book is about: showing how in only a few years the region radically changed and became another world […] In 2016 it was still full of colors: You had golden domes and Muslim symbols everywhere and women wearing veils. In 2019, all of this had disappeared.’
As the New York Times notes in its coverage, ‘Kodak is not the first international company to apologize for perceived transgressions over Xinjiang, where Western politicians and rights groups say that Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups have been subjected to forced labor and genocide by the Chinese government.’ As for Kodak’s ties to China, the NYT has found records showing Kodak China has five companies registered inside China, each of them tied to a holding company based in Hong Kong.
DUST, which will be released in October by Marseille-based publisher André Frère Éditions, features photographs captured in Xinjiang by Wack from 2016 through 2019 and includes essays from experts on the region.
1 TrueSense Imaging Inc. itself was sold to ON Semiconductor just two years later, in 2014.