In a recent New York Times Magazine On Photography column, Teju Cole wrote, “the apparent neutrality of photographs can conceal as much as it reveals–especially when the subject is violence or prejudice.” Cole’s column explores the layers of opportunity for misrepresentation through photographs due to their supposed “facticity”. Noh Suntag’s Red House examines exactly this dynamic in photographic representation using North Korea as a foil.
The Korea Artist Prize describes Noh as producing “photographs that detail real-life situations directly related to the division of Korea” and showing “how deeply the division has permeated the daily lives of the Korean people and has thus distorted the entire society.” Red House explores these themes from a subject’s presentation to the act of representing that subject with the camera through the use and consumption of the resulting photographs. Further, Noh’s photographs (and more specifically his text) acknowledge that this distortion is personal–his use of the camera in relation towards his subjects functions as a kind of mirror of his own biases.
North Korea is a particular subject that amplifies Noh’s themes. Despite the obviousness of the statement, it is necessary to note that there are few if any other places in the world where two countries’ identities are so intertwined with such fraught political, cultural and historical push and pull. Furthermore, the North’s near obsession with image and the way it presents itself to the South and the larger outside world is similarly unique. This exaggerated manipulation of its own image leads outsiders to a particular kind of fascination and creates an intense need to record what is seen. These three ideas form the basis for the three chapters in Red House.
Everyone has seen the kinds of photographs that comprise the book’s first chapter: the masses of people participating in the DPRK’s Arirang Festival events. Any reader will almost certainly have an image of thousands of people in synchronized motion come into their mind’s eye. Most of these images are interchangeable because the subject has been designed to present a particular message to do so by being seen by the camera. The scenes are an elaborate propaganda construction. Noh’s color photographs of the brightly colored Arirang Festival in 2005 are, on first glance, as interchangeable as a typical tourist’s photograph or a photojournalist’s photograph. As one flips through Noh’s photographs one becomes aware of a modulation of push and pull between overarching vistas of hundreds of people and relatively intimate tight shots of a dozen people. Within the small groups one can see variations in the individual participants’ movements. Looking back to the broad vistas these variations remain in one’s mind and the intended view is broken. Noh makes the underlying construction of the spectacle apparent. This opening set of photographs recalls Seung Woo Back’s series Utopia and Blow Up. Like Back, Noh is seeking interstitial truths within tightly controlled state spin.
With the subject as construction firmly argued, Noh moves next to the thought or thoughtlessness that occurs in the recording of this scene. Despite the almost certain knowledge that this careful grooming of particular scenes–even mundane scenes, shapes what they see, foreigners nonetheless are eager to record these scenes and their trespass into them. In this chapter Noh switches to a stark black and white reportage style which is often exaggerated through the use of an on camera flash. Noh wants us to see that he is now looking critically at the spectacle of the spectator turned witting or unwitting collaborator. The black and white is a visual marker that he is looking in a way that is significantly different than the tourists with their point and shoots that he is photographing. For him it is the almost desperate desire to record the experience of being here in North Korea that is of interest. The scene that elicits this desire is secondary.
In the final chapter of Red House, Noh turns his attention to South Korea and the way that the North becomes manifest within the South. The North becomes a straw man, a bogey man, a savior. Its role and meaning shift depending upon who is invoking it. In this way the North becomes a mirror for a range of opinions and viewpoints in the South. The one failing in this set of photographs is the need for extensive caption information to know what one is being shown; without the captions, which are often interpretive, many of the images are oblique. The upside to these captions is that Noh’s own biases are suggested. The reader is faced with having to revisit all that he has seen to this point to consider the manipulation inherent in all of the preceding images.
Throughout Red House, Noh has shown that photographs are slippery. As he says at the start of the second chapter, “I know about North Korea. However I do not know what I know about it.” His photographs show a great many views of and toward North Korea–and yet how definitive or true any one of them is remains questionable. This is intentional. How can one trust a photograph when it has been manipulated since before it was even made? Everyone manipulates the photograph: the subject, the photographer, the publisher and the viewer. At no time is the meaning of the photograph fixed. In a situation like exists between North Korea and South Korea this manipulation is highly political. Yet, as Noh’s photographs of amateur shutterbugs and political protestors show, this process can be equally apparent in the personal realm.
Publisher: Jung Jongho
Design: Avec_ Noh Younghyun
Translation: Kang-Baek Hyosu
Publishing Co.: Chungaram Media Ltd.
[Sidebar: Nearly ten years after Red House was published, photography as a driver of social media has shown that this manipulation is pursued no less aggressively by individuals than by rogue regimes. Manipulation of our recorded lives in photographs intended for sharing on social media is commonplace. Wanting to show our best selves, we push the bounds of truth.]