North Korea is a place of interest to those who hear about its whacky stories in the news. Their threats and heavy-handed leadership has given it a laughable name in politics, but there is always some suspicion whether there is any truth in them as it’s so difficult to find out. This difficulty was born when the Korean Empire was left in uncertainty from Japans Surrender of its control in World War II, soviet control poisoned its culture and turned it into a communist state that would seek to reform its US controlled southern brother, now known as South Korea. Currently, while South Korea is stable, North Korea’s incomprehensible systems of the Kim family leave it at the bottom of the world press freedom index rankings. Leaving its door shut but unlatched for those who dare to enter . To the natives it is a prosaic landscape, but to a foreigner it’s a door to a mysterious world enclosed by power.
The project was funded and hosted by the British Council. The Council seeks to improve international awareness for millions of citizens each year through their arts, education and society programmes. ‘Above the line’ was held in the downstairs gallery beautifully lit by alluring window light. The location unexpectedly put the photographs in some context of the censorship of North Korea by having guards and card barriers to access the upstairs office.
The photographs themselves where simple but effective. Critically acclaimed Danziger portrays the arcane culture of North Korea though his photography. However, what made them so intriguing was their simplicity. To see photographs of citizens at the beach, enjoying their vernacular surroundings was strange. Some with much likeness to western culture and little likeness to a country in the hands of a well-documented ‘Leninist dictator’.
There were signs of the strict government influence through the omnipresent military in many of the images. Yet, strangely for such a suppressive nation, people seemed content with them being there and the military themselves appeared open to be photographed. The majority of the images surprised me with their normality, but one in particular showed an officer point intently at the camera while a man anxiously passes by. To see the officers aggression brought much apprehension to my previous sense of surprise.
It’s difficult to make a judgement on the state of North Korea without being there. These images seduce us into the life of the citizens and give us a taste of what it might be like. But Danziger himself said it was a struggle to work independently because they were continuously monitored. So what is absent from these images? What are they hiding him from? The propaganda in North Korea is the eyes and ears of the nation. Large paintings fill whole buildings and dominate scenes; as the pigmented eyes of Kim Jong-Un look over the nation with a chilling stare. These paintings are a reminder of what North Korea could be hiding, so it is ignorant to make a judgement.