Photographer Charlie Crane and real-life tour-guide Nicholas Bonner were granted official government approval to produce a “tourist’s guide” to Pyongyang, the capital city of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — but they had to play by the rules. For instance, they were only to travel about with official guides, and to see sanctioned places of pride, and to hear the well-rehearsed commentaries of their kind but deadly serious guides. So, they played by the rules — completely.
Crane’s large-format portraits and landscapes reflect a society that is sterile, lifeless, bleak, drained of all personality, full of reserve and caution and control. The lengthy captions for each photo echo verbatim the hollow PR pitch they were served by their guides. The book is pregnant with what it does not say. The mute presentation and recitation is sometimes funny, but in the end, very chilling.
As just one example, here is the caption text for the first photo shown above:
The viewing platform of the 150 meter-high Juche Tower gives one of the best views of the city. Here we are looking at East Pyongyang district. This is mainly a residential area and you can see the standard of apartment buildings of most people in Pyongyang. The Juche Tower is a symbol of the philosophy of the Great Leader Comrade Kim II Sung. ‘Juche’ is the guiding principle of our society. Thanks to the great efforts of our President Kim II Sung, our people became an independent nation, free from the flunkeyism, dogmatism and oppression which had bound our people for centuries.
Publisher Chris Boot has been criticized sometimes for not challenging the North Korean propaganda in this book. But he responds this way:
“The way that North Korea (or anywhere) wishes to present itself is likely to be as revealing as any investigative photojournalist’s account of how the place ‘really’ is (where in any case no successfully critical photo essay about North Korea exists, as far as I am aware). The way Pyongyang has been laid out and built, and how it is presented to foreigners, is an expression of ideology – a construction – and it’s legitimate to want to engage with that.
“And there’s a point about photography generally here. There’s a tendency to want to consider photographs either as propaganda – whether commercial or ideological – or as ‘truth’, as if the choice is always one or the other.
“Yet isn’t it the case that nearly all published photographs are in fact a mixture of both? They are almost always propagandistic because something is being sold – an idea, a product, a version of events, whether benign or sinister. As it happens, I think Charlie’s photographs are unusually open – so open they are practically raw – in the best tradition of documentary photography, which is very much part of their attraction.”
Welcome to Pyongyang
by Charlie Crane
144 pages, 65 color photographs
Size: 9.5 x 7.5 inches
Published by Chris Boot
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