Maxime Matthys
2091 - The Ministry of Privacy

In the struggle against Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang province, the Chinese government uses modern surveillance technology such as facial recognition. In 2019, a data leak revealed that the Chinese company SenseNets is alleged to have used 6.7 million trackers to monitor 2.5 million people. “2091 – The Ministry of Privacy” examines the mechanisms of these facial recognition technologies. Kashgar is one of the last bastions of Uighur culture in Xinjiang. Maxime Matthys photographed people’s everyday lives here, then uploaded the pictures into facial recognition software that he developed with French IT engineer William Attache. The biometric data appear in the photos, document the dangers inherent in this invisible technology and blur the line between reality and virtuality.

  • Digitisation
  • Surveillance

»I think that’s really my approach:
Right in the middle of contemporary arts without forgetting my documentary photographer background.«

Maxime Matthys

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The Visual artist Maxime Matthys talks about his work Ministry of Privacy (with english subtitles).

3 Questions
1. The door opener: Can you describe a formative moment in your career as a visual journalist?

The most formative moment in my career was when I travelled for the second time in Xinjiang, in the extreme west of China, so as to document how the Chinese government is using technologies for mass surveillance purposes. I wanted to talk about facial recognition, which is invisible, using photography, a medium that is mostly relying on the visible. This project in Xinjiang brought my reflections on art and documentary photography into sharp relief. Now that I’ve successfully finished this project in Xinjiang, I can say that it is crucial for me to try to step out of the traditional documentary photography. Also, it has always seemed more interesting to me to allow the viewers to try and make sense of what they are looking at.

2. The decisive moment: When did you first encounter your topic and why did you decide to cover it photographically?

I first heard of mass surveillance in China when the US press started to talk about the social score. I travelled one month in Beijing and Shanghai to start working on it. I came back with traditional pictures of surveillance cameras, Chinese military forces, people being watched: nothing interesting to me. Back in France, I discovered what the Chinese government was doing to the ethnic minorities, such as Uighurs and Kazakhs in the Xinjiang region. It was unbelievable to me that we find ourselves back in a situation almost as dark as what we saw during World War II. Also, when travelling to a country that I don’t know, with my own background, skin colour, and Western perspective, it’s important that my approach is a meaningful one. If a Chinese photographer can do this project better than me, I’m not going to do it. China is classed as the worst country for press freedom. I was stopped seven times, and, to be brutally honest, I think a Chinese photographer would’ve vanished after the second arrest. So it’s impossible for a Chinese photographer to work on this. I suppose that means that I felt it was legitimate to show what was happening there.

3. The future: What could the visual journalism of the future be like?

The visual journalism of the future should escape from the small self-sustaining photojournalism “social bubble” with little space for real critique and self-reflexivity on the practice. I think it is crucial for photographers to be open-minded and to start learning and looking at other things than old-school photojournalism. I would highly suggest reading about sociology, philosophy, but also learning from art history and looking at artists using other mediums. It would certainly be a way to escape from the miserabilism a large part of the photojournalism industry is based on.

Curated by Jonas Dengler & Kai Ivo Nolda

© for all photos by the photographers
© for videos Lumix Festival Hanover, if not indicated otherwise.

*1995 in Brussels, Belgium
Maxime Matthys’ work connects photography, performance, video and installation. It deals with the question how technology influences our everyday lives and perception of reality. Along with these personal projects, Matthys documents current events. He studied Journalism and Photography in Toulouse and Paris. His work has been exhibited, distinguished and published internationally.


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