Korean dreams, text by Polly Bindman
North Korea is one of the most difficult countries in the world to access as a photographer. Ruled with an iron grip by leader Kim Jon-un, access to the outside world is heavily restricted, and the available information points some of the worst human rights abuses in the world.
Driven by her desire to explore narratives that exist within hard-to-reach societies, photographer Nathalie Daoust visited North Korea, where she used a hidden mechanism that allowed her to take covert photographs within the country. Her project ‘Korean Dreams’ explores the nature of truth in a totalitarian society, through experimental darkroom methods that conceptually mirror the transferral of information in North Korea.
Photographer Nathalie Daoust seeks to understand and uncover worlds, by exploring stories that play out in the fragile boundary between reality and imagination. She is drawn to subject matter that reveals a complex relationship between a space and its inhabitants – from the love Hotels of Tokyo, to a Mao impersonator in China. Korean Dreams is her most conceptually complex project to date; it was also the hardest to execute. Following her previous project, which focused on North Korean sex workers in China, Nathalie was compelled to visit their homeland, to better comprehend their reasons for fleeing the country. The Democratic people’s Republic of Korea is ruled with an iron grip by leader Kim Jong-un, who restricts access to the outside world. Although at the time of her visit, the risk to foreigners of being imprisoned or even executed was less severe than it is now, Nathalie still encountered great difficulties entering the country as a photographer.
Her initial plans to visit the country were by impeded what was in retrospect a poor decision to conduct a number of interviews with the press about her project on North Korean women in China, many of which were published online. Having been informed by the travel agency who were organising her trip that the amount of information that connected her with North Korea online made her too big of a risk to enter the country, Nathalie was forced to contact each magazine asking them to remove anything from the web that made reference to the project. Following 6 months of online damage control, Nathalie was finally able to enter North Korea.
It is extremely difficult for professional photographers and journalists to enter the DPRK. To reduce suspicion, Nathalie decided to pose as a tourist, and enter the country via China. As she was soon to learn, tourists in North Korea are presented with a highly curated and strictly regulated tour of the country, which allows no deviation from a tight schedule provided by the government. Yet even though Nathalie anticipated being shown an overly favourable side of North Korea on a tour designed especially for tourists, nothing could prepare her for the extent to which clear falsehoods were presented as thinly veiled masquerades of the truth.
When she arrived, Nathalie was taken to a hotel which was of a substantially lower standard than the ‘five star hotel’ that had been described to her. From small discomforts like having no toilet paper in the bathroom, to the larger concern of feeling constantly watched, the hotel exuded an oppressive, uncomfortable atmosphere. One night, unable to sleep, Nathalie wandered downstairs for a breath of fresh air. Within seconds, a guard had appeared at the entrance ordering her to go back to her room. Moments like this served as constant reminder of the surveillance state, which coupled with constant exposure to implausible information, contributed to a psychologically straining experience. Another incident which stuck out as a particularly surreal obfuscation of the truth took place on a tour of a state run hospital, where a ‘new born’ baby that in fact appeared at least six months old was presented to the group as an example of how strong North Korean genes are. The group were then told that these good genes were the reason that no handicapped babies had been born in North Korea since the 1950s, leading Nathalie to come to the sinister realisation that she hadn’t come across a single handicapped person throughout her entire trip, the implication being that they are removed from society by some violent means.
As it is difficult to get any statistics from North Korea that aren’t controlled by the state’s pervasive propaganda machine, Nathalie found herself having to constantly mediate between what she was shown and what she had been told by other sources. Unofficial reports of persistent violations of human rights, including the execution or imprisonment of anyone who acts out of accordance with the state, for actions ranging from reading the bible to wearing jeans, conflicted with what was presented as a just and healthy society.
In order to take photographs covertly, Nathalie had to develop a mechanism that allowed her to take photographs on her camera, which included a shutter release extension and switch that attached to a cable hidden in her sleeve. The photographs themselves evoke the climate of misinformation that Nathalie experienced, expressed through Nathalie’s experimental darkroom techniques that obscure the photos during the printing process. Images of civilians bicycling against an urban backdrop, military personnel of marching stridently in line, and schoolchildren staring pensively out of the frame, appear suspended in an ambiguous, timeless dimension. The results are indistinct and somewhat ghostlike, where the original image is ‘lost’ in the process. The resultant pictures speak to North Korean society, of missing information and truth concealed.