North Korea is a mystery to most people—even to those who have visited the country several times. Cut off from the rest of the world, and ruled by a hostile and aggressive leader who threatens others with nuclear attacks, the small Communist nation severely censors all information flowing into and out of the country. As such, it is difficult to know what is real and normal, and what is part of the never-ending stream of nationwide propaganda.
The country’s capital city, Pyongyang, was utterly destroyed and leveled during the Korean War in the 1950s, and then completely re-designed and re-built by the government, from the ground up. Taking its cues from Cold War-era Moscow, Berlin, and Warsaw, Pyongyang was intended to be another showcase city for socialist modernity, loaded with imposing symbolism. Still today, it is massive, intimidating, impersonal—and remarkably empty of ordinary people, pedestrians, traffic or workers. It’s like a ghost town or a vast stage set to promote “belief” in something that is really not there. In many ways, it’s like stepping back into time—mid-20th-century socialist architecture that has made no effort to keep up with the times.
Dutch photographer Eddo Hartmann (the 1st Place Winner of the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018) has traveled to Pyongyang on four official visits. Although the scope of his projects was extremely limited by government censors and “guides” who accompanied him everywhere—and often looked through his viewfinder before allowing him to make a picture—Hartmann pursued a strategy that allowed him to capture varied, detailed views of the facades and “stage sets” of public life. In the resulting work, he captures the awkwardness and isolation one feels in the streets, parks, and buildings that are 100% controlled by the authoritarian government.
By pursuing “slow photography” and using a medium-format camera on a tripod, Hartmann encourages the viewers of his large-scale cityscapes and architectural interiors to pay attention to all of the details in each of his pictures—to see every little thing that is in front of the camera, and to notice what is not in the pictures as well.
Besides his medium-format camera, he also employed a video camera on a tripod (making images that look like still shots which reveal tiny movements), a DSLR for traditional, reportage-style images and portraits, a 360-degree camera set-up that allowed him to capture a virtual reality view of metro stations and other public spaces. And finally—without permission from his official guides—he used a tiny, hidden, wide-angle GoPro camera to capture the in-between moments as his guides shuttled him to and from monuments, public squares, sterile buildings and other pre-approved tourist views.
What we are able to appreciate from his work is not so much an exposé as a view of typical empty, stilted, heavily-controlled daily life in the capital. We have no way of knowing what life is like for the ordinary citizens who live outside these main boulevards on the official tour. However, when these multiple views are presented alongside each other, the viewer can begin to imagine and feel what life is like in Pyongyang.
In an excellent opening essay to Hartmann’s book, Koen De Ceuster writes: “Hidden behind the built facade of Pyongyang is a city of more than three million inhabitants…who remain largely out of sight as they go about their daily lives…The city is compressed into one monumental ideological statement, a giant stage where visitors are guided from scene to scene in what appears to be a never-ending pantomime.…Every story, every visit begins and ends with the Great Leaders, absorbing all attention like a black hole consuming all light.”
Exhibition in Amsterdam, Website and Book
Befitting such a long-term, trans-media project, there are many ways to appreciate Hartmann’s work fully. An excellent multi-floor exhibition of the work at the Huis Marseille museum of photography in Amsterdam immerses the viewer in North Korea. Impeccable, mural-size prints convey the immense blandness of the capital city. Videos present a surreal view of vast, empty public spaces filled with the sound of endless propagandist messages emitting from loudspeakers. When you don the VR headsets, you are transported onto the platform of a majestic (yet almost ghostly) metro station, surrounded by a few humbly dressed government workers. In all of the images, whenever you spot a person, even in the formal portrait shots, they seem like “extras” in a movie, never one of the main characters.