This is a book review of “The North Koreans: Glimpses of Daily Life in the DPRK”. 2017. Primavera Pers.
When it comes to images and video materials, one can be certain that the last 20-30 years, and especially the last decade, will be remembered by future historians as the most photographed era in human history.
First, we witnessed the rise of the cheap automatic camera which made possible for anybody with, say, 30 minutes training in photography to produce quality photos.
The digital camera, often combined with a ubiquitous mobile phone, then made its appearance and produced a true tidal wave of pictures. Most will disappear in due time, but even a tiny fraction of what will survive will make much easier for the next generations to imagine the world of the early 2000s.
In a country famous for suspicion, taking pictures of everyday life is bound to invite unwelcome questions
However, there are some parts of the world which have been untouched by the explosive growth of photography – and North Korea is one such place.
To start with, North Korea is a poor place, so not many people can afford a digital camera. Even if one has a camera, a person is unlikely to use it for anything by taking personal photos.
In a country famous for suspicion, taking pictures of everyday life is bound to invite unwelcome questions – especially if such photos show a less-official image of North Korea. While, I strongly suspect, some people are taking dangerous pictures anyway, their number is bound to be small.
There is, of course, another reason why the pictures of daily life are seldom produced locally. Everyday life is too mundane, too natural, and too boring to be seen as worthy of shooting even in the most liberal and democratic societies. It is not incidental that, most frequently, everyday life is photographed by outsiders, usually tourists, for whom the locals’ mundane and uneventful life is thrilling and exotic and filled with strange beauty.
However, when it comes to North Korea, one cannot seriously count on tourist picture as well. North Korea has a strict official code which determines what can be pictured and what cannot: frequently, cameras are checked for unwelcomed pictures at border checkpoints.
North Korea may be the world’s only country which has such a censorship system. On top of that, tourists are always driven through a secure and sanitized environment, and officially approved photo opportunities have not changed for decades.
It’s for these reasons that one should not get over-excited if he or she comes across some website or book which promises “a glance into the hitherto forbidden world of North Korea.”
In most cases, you will see yet another presentation of the same scenery and same topics which have been photographed countless times before. A professional photographer, when allowed to visit North Korea, could use their superior skills and expensive equipment to catch something slightly unusual, but one should not normally expect to see pictures which reveal how 90% of North Koreans live their daily life.
North Korea has a strict official code which determines what can be pictured and what cannot
This is why “The North Koreans: Glimpses of daily life in the DPRK” (Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2016), a large coffee table book of North Korean photography, came as a pleasant surprise. I was aware of some the photos one can see in the book, but it is still surprising that so many ‘unofficial’ images of North Korea could be made and collected in one place.
Indeed, the book is dramatically different from what most people, including life-long North Korean watchers, have seen before. It presents us with a picture of daily life as it is: neither particularly grim nor particularly cheerful.
We can see scenes which are not supposed to be photographed: women doing manual construction work on poorly mechanized sites, repair workers doing what they can to keep rusty buses in operation, vendors on the streets, and women moving heavy loads of merchandise on their way to the marketplace.
We see rehearsals of parades and official rallies where thousands are moving as obedient citizens, local farmers guarding their plots against theft, and urban folks riding overcrowded trams.
All this might sound somewhat pessimistic and grim, but it is not: while none of these scenes would appear in a glossy propaganda magazine, all of them are perfectly normal glimpses of life one would come across at any poor country of the world.
It presents us with a picture of North Korea daily life, as it is – neither particularly grim nor particularly cheerful
It is quite remarkable, though, how such pictures could have been taken. Most of the photos in the book have been produced by three authors: Raymond Cunnigham, Eric Lafforgue, and Martin Tutsch – although it is Tutsch who produced most of the photos.
For years he has been residing in the DPRK, and unlike many fellow expats, he used this unusual situation to take pictures which not merely made this unique book possible, but will certainly become a feature of all publications on North Korean history for many decades to come.
Some of Martin Tutsch’s works have been available online, albeit never under his real name, but the book makes these unique photos, as well as remarkable pictures by Raymond Cunnigham and Eric Lafargue, easy to access.
The photos are accompanied by a well-written explanatory text which provides the readers with thoughtful introductions to the daily life of North Koreans, and also give basic commentary for the many scenes which are depicted by the photographers.
“The North Koreans” can be seen as a remarkable breakthrough. I would describe it as the best visual representation of North Korea’s daily life, available not only in English, but in any language, including Korean – a truly unique and valuable book indeed.
Featured image: Women doing heavy work on the construction of the Wonsang-Hamhung Road near Munchon. Photo 2008, Martin Tutsch.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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