With the recent the passing of Kim Jong II and the changes to the family leadership in North Korea, I am motivated by an opportunity to review an earlier photobook by Hiroshi Watanabe who was allowed “access” to travel and photograph within North Korea in 2007.
Hiroshi states, “What I heard about North Korea were all terrible stories – stories of people starving and dying on the streets, stories of people being abused and brutalized by the police and stories of the ignorance of the North Korean people resulting from the strict government media control….and I felt uncomfortable and unsettled about our views and perceptions of North Korea. I was puzzled and intrigued, and I wanted to take a personal journey and see the country and the lives of the North Korean people with my own eyes.”
Thus Watanabe seems set out to investigate the North Korean culture as a reality versus the political propaganda that is promulgated by many interested parties; North Korea, South Korea, Japan as well as U.S. depictions. In retrospect, I do not sense that we are provided any “information” that defines North Korea as much as this place provides a foil for Watanabe’s photographic interest and vision.
I found this photographic project to have similarities in composition and framing as his other projects, but dissimilar in that this was photographed in color and not in his signature black & white medium. The addition of color does little to improve the overall drabness of the built locations of North Korea.
Many of the photographs contain a sense of dullness, lacking a feeling of sparkle or shine, which might equally be a result of environmental conditions of the time of year that this project was photographed. The light seems to have a pervasive overcast feeling, seemingly to add to an undercurrent of gloom. The photographs which contain bare trees convey a supporting narrative of empty space and a lack of content. Even with the inclusion of blooming trees that should provide a sense of life and hope, there still is sense of flatness to the surrounding surfaces.
Watanabe has previously expressed his interest in collaborative photobooks, where there is an editorial and design team to play off of. As I understand, Watanabe still maintains a veto vote, thus I think the first book spread below is characteristic of his humor and subtle dialog. We see a photograph of a smiling young man who is caught in mid-salute while looking to the facing page and the photograph of painting of the Kim Jong II amongst is smiling constitutes, as though this is a little smirk and a node as to might be really true versus fiction. With most of Watanabe’s paired photographs, those that face each other do so for a reason in which one plus one creates a multitude. Nevertheless, and probably unsurprising, I also observe similarities in the layering of the subject’s content, which appear to be color versions of the photographs featured in his subsequent photobook Findings.
His portraits are also very similar in style to his later work, usually framed tight, varying between three-quarters to an isolation of just the head and shoulders. Watanabe utilizes a longer lens at maximum aperture to further isolate and draw the viewer’s attention to the facial features of his subjects. The shallow depth of field paired with his careful compositions provides soft pastel backgrounds that seem to engulf his subjects and provides a series of wonderful and sensitive portraits. It appears to me that Watanabe celebrates his subjects as real individuals, who exist irrespective of the swirling political culture.
What we see is potential evidence of what life and society may be like in North Korea, but also evident that this is mostly a result of an organized façade, as with any kind of overly supervised photography; the limitations to delve below the surface are substantial.
Lesley A. Martin summarizes this photobook very nicely; “The results, engaging, yet still mysterious, bring us one side of this closed-off place, introducing us to a vibrant, compelling set of individuals but still leave us to wonder.”
The book object; this is a hardcover book with dust jacket, with the square color photographs bordered by an ample white margin, usually the single photographs per page are paired through the book. The book has pagination, but lacks captions to provide any additional external contextual meaning.
A brief Afterword is provided by Watanabe with all text provided in English and Japanese. This photobook was recognized by Aperture and subsequently an introduction by Lesley A. Martin is provided on the inside of the illustrated dust jacket.