In this busy and anxious time, questions about where to go seem to become more urgent. Perhaps because of this uncertainty people feel the need to return home. Zhang Boyuan is one of these people. He was born in Urumqi, China, and is an independent and documentary photographer. On his website, he shares some memories of the cold winters in Urumqi. These recollections of the past become more fragmented, harder to grasp, and can only be accessed while dreaming.
‘There are many reasons why a person leaves his hometown; similarly, people return to their hometowns for different reasons. For me, I will definitely not go home when I am frustrated, encounter difficulties, and do not know where to go next.’ Zhang Boyuan
In 2017, Zhang Boyuan began to create the project My Tarim. In two years, he’d traveled to southern Xinjiang four times, and his project gradually expanded from the Tarim River to the entire southern Xinjiang region. His photo project is not so much an exploration of his identity but rather a retrospective look at his memories and solitary experience in his hometown. In this project, he reconstructed the connection among the land, people and things in his hometown.
In this series, he preserves the sudden violence and constant silence in nature. He records the ancient history which is secretly buried in daily life and captures the warmth and strangeness of what can be defined as home. In this Artist Takeover, young photographer Zhang Boyuan will share with us his hometown, the cornerstone of his creation and life.
'Hometown' is a word rarely used in Chinese dialogue. It always comes with the context of someone bearing something, like distance, taste, faces, temperature, or regret. Put them together, the other side of the equal sign could be 'memory.'
I have almost no memories of The Tarim Basin from when I was born, hence the sense of rootlessness and the confusion of my identity made by my time abroad even more self-doubting. The extent to which I can connect with this uncompleted hometown can only be known if it is completed. Going south to sense the root of the landscapes and the flavors was my only option.
In this shooting, there was a very interesting experience, but it was a pity that I didn’t keep the photos. At the time, I was looking for someone to take pictures on the riverbed of the Yulong Kashi River. At the same time, I met two or three groups of jade sellers, young and old. After I took a photo of an old man with a polaroid, the old man offered to exchange things, so he gave me a stone and took the photo. In those two days, I traded the photos to white stones, mulberry paper, mulberry paper insoles, walnut handmade bowls and walnut combs. In such a simple exchange, I realised that my hometown is very fulfilling and complete.
In this process of creation, my state can be described as ‘hunting for wonder.’ Faced with strange places, people, languages, landscapes, and plants, I always greedily observe and absorb information from everywhere. But I am not a tourist. My purpose is very clear. I want to use the lens to record all the things that I am moved by. Populus and camels are some of them. For me, camels represent the places that are far away, and populus represents the places that stay in situ. During the trip, I luckily photographed the wild camel in the northwest twice and this populus tree that I filmed was on the roadside, just like a hand growing horizontally.
After seeing Sima Yi Sadik in person, I remembered how Roland Barthes wrote in the opening chapter of The Bright Room that he saw a picture of Napoleon's brother Jerome, and my ‘Jerome moment’ was no less than Barthes’, because I accidentally saw ‘Alderke’ (the Rob, formerly known as Usman Umak, a guide for Sven Heding’s expedition in Lop Nur and he is also the discoverer of Xiaohe Cemetery).
I still remember what Sima Yi looked like when we first met. He was dressed in a smoky gray fine-line suit with a pair of black leather shoes, a gray striped shirt with a gray sweater and a small black leather hat. He was holding a walking stick with a stainless steel and plastic handle. The two ears on his head were slightly larger than the average person's ears which were lowered by the hat. His face was wrinkled like the surface of a populus, his eyes were expressive but drooped from time. There was a white goatee on his chin. And finally, he stretched out his rough but powerful palms to hold me.
I was looking at the eyes of the person who had looked at the discoverer of Loulan’s Ancient City Ruins whilst hearing the stories from him about his ancestors’ adventures 100 years ago. I have seen the empty eyes of the Loulan Beauty that have been sleeping in the Taklimakan for more than 3,000 years, with her secrets being sealed in time and sands. The portrait of each sheep leads to a dining table, the camel that without a bell leads to a remote far away.
For me, photography is beyond a medium to record the scenes, it is a storage system that closes to memory. For more than two years of extension in the Tarim Basin, I managed to use photographs to create a 'memory library' of my hometown. To complete one's hometown, one needs to 'choose it as a hometown' in the first place. Essentially, My Tarim is the Tarim that only belongs to me.