China: My Washington Post Photo

I wasn't sure if I could cough up any editorial interest in my Uyghur photographs before coming to Xinjiang. Dozens of journalists had rushed out to Kasghar the day after the Aug. 4th attack to try to cover the China's Islamic separatists, or so they thought. I didn't even get my visa to China till Aug. 14th so was a little late in the game even though I had been wanting to go there since 2004.


On my second day in Beijing, I bumped into Jill Drew, the Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief, who had given me directions to a good breakfast joint. We hadn't met before, and it was a total coincidence that I had freelanced for the Post every week during parts of 2004 and 2005. She slipped me her card and suggested we stay in touch in the event something out West blew up again.

It did.

On Aug., 28, another cell of Uyghurs, including one woman, used knives to attack a group of policemen in Jiashi county-roughly 60 kms from Kashgar. Radio Free Asia and AP had gotten wind of the story first. It was the one day I hadn't checked Xinjiang-related events through Google News. Jill phoned and asked me if I had heard about it.

According to Jill's story, several men and a woman ambushed a group of Uyghur policemen with knives-the recent weapon of choice for close-quarter assassinations. Two cops died from stab wounds and several others were wounded. Police responded quickly and shot six of them while between 1000-2000 chased the rest through a corn field.

I tried to organize transport out there to see what I could photograph. I knew it wouldn't be much. Jill told me the roads had been closed off. And I knew just raising my camera body to my eye would bring unwanted attention and a lot of questions, deleted photos, and possible deportation. It was lot to risk for a shot of gloved hand in my face.

Furthermore, the greatest risk was to my local guides, drivers and helpers. The one guy who had been driving me around said he wouldn't go because he had heard of another taxi driver who got harassed by cops after being seen with a group of tourists who filmed a bar raid in another town.

The Apr. 29 knife incident mirrored an earlier attack in Shule country in the small village of Yemanya. Like all other episodes of violence, they were well-coordinated, brief, and carried out by small cells armed with almost medieval weapons. (Trucks and homemade bombs have been used in Kuqa and Kashgar)/ I did make it to that town to check things out. Noone would talk about the three guys who were killed at a small checkpoint on Apr. 12. And my translator refused to ask anyone questions on my behalf.

It turns out the suspects in that incident were the same in the recent Jiashi knifing.

Jill ended up taking a few older checkpoint photos from the town of Beskkerem and forwarded them onto Washington. I had gone there a few days earlier and subtely photographed police searching Uyghur-owned cars after returning from a wedding. I had to shoot them by holding the camera just above the dashboard so as to not draw any attention to myself. The Post ran one image with Jill's text but mistakenly credited the image to her even though she sent specific instructions about my Pulitzer Center by-line. It was corrected in the on-line edition the following day.

Although by no means a Pulitzer-prize winning image, it paid to stay behind the pack and wait.

While the current warfare seems rudimentary, with homemade bombs and traditional Uyghur daggers serving as the alleged tools jihad, it seems to be escalating as the days go by.