The American film-photography company Eastman Kodak deleted an Instagram post it shared describing China’s Xinjiang province — where an estimated 1.8 million ethnic minority Uyghurs are detained, and the U.S. has declared “genocide” is taking place — as an “Orwellian dystopia.”
In mid-July, Kodak initially shared a 10-photo Instagram post by French documentary photographer Patrick Wack, which featured photos from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. In his June 29 Instagram post, Wack wrote, “In recent years, the region has been at the centre of an international outcry following the mass-incarceration of its Uyghur population and other Muslim minorities. This body of work captures a visual narrative of the region and is a testimony to its abrupt descent into an Orwellian dystopia.”
Kodak later deleted their post and published a separate Instagram post apologizing over the matter.
“Content from the photographer Patrick Wack was recently posted on this Instagram page,” Kodak wrote on July 19. “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.”
According to the Hong Kong Free Press, Kodak further apologized in a separate statement on the Chinese-language app WeChat.
“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,” the statement read. “We will keep ourselves in check and correct ourselves, taking this as an example of the need for caution.”
Wack, 42, told the Hong Kong Free Press, “It’s disappointing, especially when it comes from a company like this, which has been for a hundred years one of the main traders in the photography industry and prides itself on helping people record important events. I think that’s what’s upsetting most people.”
Wack said, “Once they made the post, even if they were harassed by Chinese trolls… they should have stayed with it. It was starting to get ugly for them and that’s why they panicked.”
Since Kodak deleted the post with his photos, Wack has seen an outpouring of online support on his own Instagram page. He told the Hong Kong Free Press he feels conflicted about the issue and is worried the backlash against Kodak is overshadowing the issues in Xinjiang itself and the nuance of the photos he took.
“It’s not like I had images of Uyghur people in camps, or Uyghur people being rounded up,” Wack said. “I don’t have those images. I think that’s also part of the issue. You need to be more subtle to understand the images, the fact that you can’t photograph these events there. I photographed the evolution of the region, I photographed the atmosphere.”
In January, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, officially declared China has committed crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang. Pompeo cited systems of internment against Xinjiang Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups such as detention camps, house arrest and forced labor. He also described “coercive population control measures” including forced sterilizations, forced abortion, forced birth control, and the removal of children from their families.
Other U.S. companies and figures have found themselves in public relations dilemmas over their business relationships with China.
In 2019, the NBA apologized to China for a tweet by Houston Rockets Coach Daryl Morey, in which Morey shared support for Hong Kongers protesting new Chinese security laws over the semi-autonomous territory. Morey had tweeted, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The league’s apologies prompted further backlash from U.S. fans as well as U.S. lawmakers, who accused the league of bowing to China to preserve their financial interests in the country.
In May 2021, actor John Cena apologized in Mandarin for referring to Taiwan as a country. Taiwan governs itself as an independent country, but China maintains a claim of sovereignty over the island. Cena apologized in Mandarin by saying, “I made one mistake. I have to say something very, very, very important now. I love and respect China and Chinese people. I’m very, very sorry about my mistake. I apologize, I apologize, I’m very sorry. You must understand that I really love, really respect China and the Chinese people. My apologies. See you.”