The American company Eastman Kodak has deleted an Instagram post featuring images of Xinjiang, a western Chinese region where the government is accused of grave human rights violations, after an online backlash from Beijing’s supporters.
The post was promoting the work of the French photographer Patrick Wack, who made several trips to Xinjiang in recent years and has collected his images into a book. The project received a lift last week when Kodak shared 10 of his images — all shot on Kodak film — with its 839,000 Instagram followers.
In the Kodak post and on his own Instagram account, Mr. Wack described his images as a visual narrative of Xinjiang’s “abrupt descent into an Orwellian dystopia” over the past five years. That did not sit well with Chinese social media users, who often object vociferously to Western criticism of Chinese government policies. In addition to deleting the post, Kodak apologized for “any misunderstanding or offense” that it might have caused.
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.
Now Kodak is facing criticism online not only from Chinese social media users, but from people in the West who still see its products as the industry gold standard for analog photography.
“A company working in photography should not have been afraid to take a stand on a project that’s so important for human rights,” said Ariane Kovalevsky, the Paris-based director of Inland Stories, an international cooperative of 11 documentary photographers, including Mr. Wack.
Mr. Wack, 42, said that Kodak’s decision was notable in part because its products have been used for decades to document political events.
“So for them, one of the main actors historically in photography, to say they don’t want to be political is what’s upsetting so many people,” said Mr. Wack, who lived in China for 11 years and is now based in Berlin.
Mr. Wack grew up outside Paris and has taken pictures on assignment for The New York Times and many other Western publications. His book, “Dust,” will be released in October by André Frère Éditions, a publisher in the French city of Marseille.
The book includes photographs he took in Xinjiang from 2016 to 2019, along with essays by academic experts on the region and the journalist Brice Pedroletti, the former China bureau chief for the French newspaper Le Monde. Many of the pictures show construction sites amid muted, dusty landscapes; Mr. Wack has said that the book captures the “uneasy” relationship between local residents and settlers from China’s majority Han ethnic group.
The first part of the book is based on analog pictures from 2016 and 2017, and drawn from “Out West,” a series in which Mr. Wack tries to draw visual parallels between the Chinese government’s settlement of Xinjiang and the westward expansion of the United States.
“I wanted to make a parallel between the founding American mythology — the 19th-century mythology of the conquest of the West — with all the dreams it carries for those settlers and all the despair and mystery it brought to all the natives,” Mr. Wack said in an interview.
The lead image in the Kodak post was a somber portrait from the “Out West” series. It shows a Uyghur man gazing out from the door of his home, southeast of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, as his shadow falls directly behind him.
The second part of the book, “The Night Is Thick,” consists of digital images that Mr. Wack took on two separate trips to Xinjiang in 2019, as the Chinese government was escalating its crackdown on the Uyghurs. None of those images were included in Kodak’s Instagram post.
Mr. Wack said that he was initially approached by a social media manager from Kodak who was enthusiastic about his work — and who later apologized after the company Instagram post about him was removed, saying the decision had been made by upper management. Kodak Eastman did not respond to requests for comment during the Asia business day on Wednesday.
Mr. Wack’s Instagram post for Kodak said that the Xinjiang region had “been in recent years at the center of an international outcry following the mass incarceration of its Uyghur population and other Muslim minorities.”
In the post that Kodak uploaded this week to replace Mr. Wack’s photos and commentary, the company said that its Instagram page was designed to “enable creativity by providing a platform for promoting the medium of film,” not to be a “platform for political commentary.”
On its Chinese-language website, Kodak said in a statement that it had identified a “supervision loophole” in its content production that it promised to “review and correct.”
Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid, said in an article on Wednesday about Kodak’s decision that some companies and individuals were catering to “the Western demand to demonize Xinjiang” for publicity and financial gain.
Kodak, which was founded in 1888, was once a household technology brand in the United States. Now it is a cautionary tale about what happens when a tech company is slow to change. In 2012, the company filed for bankruptcy protection after fumbling the shift to digital images.
Corporate records show that Kodak China has five companies registered in mainland China, all of them linked to a holding company in Hong Kong.
On the Twitter-like Chinese platform Sina Weibo, some users asked this week why such an “ancient” American brand was posting about China. Others said that Mr. Wack’s criticism of the Chinese government’s mass-incarceration policies in Xinjiang was at odds with his benign-looking landscape photography.
“Xinjiang is so beautiful, but Kodak tries to stealthily slip in its own bias to get attention” read the headline of an article on Guancha.com, a nationalistic news site, that was shared on Weibo by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League.
Mr. Wack said on Wednesday that the landscapes were made partly for aesthetic reasons, but also practical ones: He 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.
“The only thing you can photograph is the grim atmosphere, and the change in the landscape,” he said.
“That’s what the book is about: showing how in only a few years the region radically changed and became another world,” he added. “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.”
Cao Li contributed reporting.