Category Archives: North Korea

Red House, Noh Suntag

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.

Red House
Noh Suntag
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.]

Documentary 1985-2005, DongPhil Shin

This review is late. Not because it was supposed to be last week’s missed post (or yesterday’s for that matter) but because I had intended to write about this book back in June immediately after the post on On The Line. That post was published the weekend that Memorial Day was observed here in the United States. On the Line‘s examination of the lasting impact of the still simmering Korean War presented photographer’s observations of the political, social, cultural and personal effects that the war has had.

While it is important to acknowledge that military conflict has a role in shaping the world (in a larger sense if not an immediate personal sense) and to acknowledge those who form these militaries, it would be a mistake to forget that there are plenty of tumultuous non-military events, national, local and personal that have shaped the current state of the world and more locally of Korea. Not all of these events are military. Some, certainly, are tied to the branches that spread from military conflicts, but many more are tied to broad struggles for individual autonomy and opportunity within national and local politics and economic structures. Much of this struggle has been by ordinary people, united.

DongPhil Shin has traced the buds and branches of social upheaval that has marked Korea over the past decades. Documentary 1985-2005 brings together 5 discrete projects plus an overarching view of street protest in Korea in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Throughout these projects is a sense of the individual’s role in shaping larger narratives. At the root of any confrontation, social change or economic shift are individuals who march in the streets, pull lumps of rock from hillsides, maintain and affirm that “this is what I believe” or simply live their lives day by day.

Shin’s photographs are starkly documentary in form while constantly laying bare his own social and political views. At first glance they would appear to be pulled from newspaper or magazine articles (and indeed they may have first been published in these outlets). They are, however, more than simply journalistic images meant to feed a hungry and fickle press. Shin studied philosophy before studying photography. His photographs are intensely personal and mine a deeper emotional current that runs beneath their surface and of the social fabric which they depict.

Bong-Lim Choi, in the book’s introductory text, describes Shin’s photography as “evocations of the imperialism, capitalism and authorization [sic] rules that completely deprived the public of their individual life [sic].” His photographs are angry even when they are quiet. Taking the “suffocating age of oppression” as their subject, the photographs depict those under the boot of history taking defiantly to the street or maintaining a quiet quotidian dignity through their suffering.

On the flap of the dustjacket is a portrait of Shin. He gently cradles his Mamiya 7 with Metz flash against his chest. A Contax G2 hangs from his shoulder. He stares coolly out at the viewer. A two tone wall is behind him–though half of it dissolves to nothing. His face and clothing is covered in the soot of the street. The portrait perfectly encapsulates Choi’s closing thoughts from his introductory text: social engagement is critical to Shin’s sense of humanity and that his photographs adopt an ideological standpoint shared by, in his view, the majority of our society. Shin’s photographs are as much participants in the upheaval that they depict as they are a documentation.

The book begins and ends with photographs of street protests–both close and personal and pulled back to abstract crowds. These opening and closing images announce Shin’s intentions. The five projects book ended by these sets of street protest photographs bring into focus personal stories that lay bare the wounds inflicted by an imperfect world; it is this world that the protests are aiming to change for the better. (Nearly a decade on from the last image being made, there is a fair debate to be had on whether or not the improvements sought have been achieved and what opportunities, if any, were missed. This review will steer clear of making any such historical judgement.)

The five series are: People Who Didn’t Change Their Political Faith and Went Back to North Korea; A Coal Town; A School in Japan Run by the Pro-North Korean Residents’ League in Japan; Korean Victims of the Atomic Bomb; and The Korean Residents in Kyoto. One photograph from each:

People Who Didn’t Change Their Political Faith and Went Back to North Korea: A elderly man lays in bed en-robed in quilts, blankets and bedding. A pool of light, like a death mask, illuminates his face, catching on the gray hair at his temples and his white beard. His clothing has fallen off of his left shoulder, which is bare. He looks up and out of the frame. It is hard to read his emotion: disappointment? expectation? hope? stoic resignation? regret?

A Coal Town: A man sits eating lunch. He is shirtless. A yellow plastic miner’s helmet is perched on his head, its lamp illuminating his lunch. The flash of the camera separates him from the dark tunnel stretching out behind him. A pair of railroad tracks lead back into the gloom. This could be any ajashi anywhere in Korea taking a break for lunch save for the setting. The darkness is all encompassing except the pool of light the miner sits in.

A School in Japan Run by the Pro-North Korean Residents’ League in Japan: Four students sit at their desks besides windows. The windows have been blocked with newspapers to block the glare of sunlight (?). The students are bent over school work that they are writing out in notebooks. Their bags hang beside their desks. There is light outside the windows, but it is muted, grayed, and blocked by the newspapers’ printed text. The light is mediated. (On the following page three students look out an opened window. It is not blocked with newspapers. They all smile at the photographer. One girl pokes her head out of the window and into the light, wind sweeps through loose strands of her hair.)

Korean Victims of the Atomic Bomb: An older middle aged man sits cross legged on the floor; he faces to his right exposing his left side to the camera. Behind him is a wall papered with a floral pattern. A soft gray infuses the photograph; a light from the right illuminates a scar that runs down his side. The man’s hair is disheveled. His eyes look down and away. There is stubble on his face. His expression is not pained but shows the trace of pain long endured.

The Korean Residents in Kyoto 1987 – 2004: a man, his eyelids heavy and drooping, almost closed, sits on a pile of blankets. His face is in luminous shade. He is warming his hands over an electric hot plate or small gas grill. A suit and white shirt are hanging on the pull of an armoir behind him. Through the glass panes of the door we can see towels or blankets. Kitchen utensils clutter the left foreground. From the right a draped window casts a soft gray light across the scene.

The protest picture that closes the book: Night time; a large public square seen from above. We are looking down on a field of myriad light sources–candles most likely. Each is held by a person though we cannot see the people in the dark of the night except a few silhouettes or along the periphery of the crowd where it comes beside a major roadway’s street lights. What we see is the light that they bring: hope, determination, belief, willingness to action.

As the world seems to be fragmenting and falling apart today before our very eyes in the newspapers and on the news channels, Shin’s photographs remind of us two things: it is real people who bear the brunt of suffering and it is the union of individuals acting in concert that brings about change. In the photographs light becomes a halo or a salve for those who have been wronged and points like an arrow so that the viewer might see. Light, too, is held by the individual and in the massing of individuals it fills the frame with light. DongPhil Shin wields his camera like a torch; he is not so much recording light as directing it with a political eye towards illuminating the imperialist, capitalist and authoritarian wrongs that the State has brought to bear on individuals. Shin shows not only the wrongs that have been wrought but also offers a path of action for ameliorating these wrongs–at the center of both is the individual.

Photographer: DongPhil Shin
Essay: Bong-Lim Choi
Publisher: Cana Books
Copyright DongPhil Shin 2006

Collecting Side Note

While I usually shop for Korean photo books in Korea (obviously), I happened across this book in Alabaster Books, a small New York book shop on 4th Avenue. I was killing time between appointments and stopped into the shop on a whim. As I set down a collection of A.D. Coleman essays I noticed the Korean lettering on the spine of Documentary. I haggled a little with the proprietor on the price and then bought the book.

Flipping through the book later I came across a handful of details that lay out a provenance to the book that make it moderately interesting as a historical object, though they certainly don’t make it valuable.

Tucked into the title page is a shipping label. This copy of the book was sent by the photographer to the “Stefan Stux Gallery”. I assume the book was part of a submission by the photographer to the gallery.

Below the colophon is a stamp with a handwritten edition number (83/200) with a red stamp over this (it appears to be the photographer’s stamp). The quality of the printing suggests that the book was probably printed in a larger edition than 200 (though I could certainly be wrong), and I wonder if this book hadn’t originally accompanied a print as a sort of special edition.

At the back of the book, in the margin of the profile/C.V. of the photographer is a hand drawn self portrait of the photographer in ink.

It is discovering small details like this that make seeking and collecting fun.

On The Line, ed. Shin Suejin

Here in American it is Memorial Day Weekend. It is the official start of the summer driving season. BBQ grills are on overdrive, and nearly everyone is gathered around one. In Brooklyn the cyclists are out in droves, and the mood is festive. The skies are blue. And, oh by the way, the weekend is meant to provide an opportunity to memorialize those who have given everything to preserve this country in the many (military) struggles it has been engaged in and to reflect upon their sacrifice.

To extend this memorializing and reflection to another country and another culture is dangerous. To even broach the raw emotions of contemporary politics is more dangerous still (and rude). Well, so be it.
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Five Views From Korea @ Noorderlicht Photo Gallery

The Noorderlicht Photogallery will be showing Five Views from Korea February 8th through April 13th. Work from Seung Woo Back, Jaegu Kang, Insook Kim, Suntag Noh and Xuezhe Shen is brought together to examine “the discomfort and nagging feeling of an unending cold war since the division of the Korean peninsula.”

From Guest Curator Sujong Song:

Every day, the papers are flooded with news heralding tension on the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps because they are in the eye of the storm, but the people living in the southern half are largely skeptical of an outbreak of war. The feeling closest to fear they experience is annoyance, as if they’ve been reminded of a particularly stubborn splinter that might never be removed. Guest curator Sujong Song presents with Five Views from Korea five projects from photographers, which are the result of these frustrations felt in everyday life by this reality.
‘Ultimately, these are narratives regarding five perspectives on either the nations tied to the divided Korean Peninsula or the identity of those who live within the countries’ influences. Invisible ideologies attempt to control us in whatever way possible, while we struggle to overcome that restraint. It is the things unseen that dig most deeply into our everyday lives, irrevocably bore into our skin.’

On this blog we’ve looked at some of the photographers included in the exhibit, and reviews of books that include work of at least one of the others are in the works. This looks like an interesting show. Too bad I won’t be able to get to Groningen to check it out. Hopefully there will be a catalog or accompanying book available.

More info.

Utopia / Blow Up, Seung Woo Back

Cover of Utopia / Blow Up by Seung Woo Back

Seung Woo Back’s Utopia / Blow Up comprises his two related series of the same names. I purchased this book on a trip in 2009 and it remains one of my favorites. It is interesting not only for the images themselves, but also the conceptual framework girding them and the physical container they exist in. Each reinforces the others.

The physical book is 36 pages, oversized and printed full color with metallic embossed details on newsprint in an edition of 1000. There is a 3 page insert with essays in both English and Korean by Hye Young Shin and Pyong-Jong Park. Jeong Eun Kim edited the book, and Yeoun Joo Park designed it. U/BU was published in 2009 in collaboration with IANNBOOKS.

Utopia is Back’s fictionalized North Korea; by exaggerating, adding to and dividing the infrastructure in existing images he plays with the notion of an idealized society’s physical structure. His is not a glossy antiseptic ideal. The color palate is muted (exacerbated by the newsprint), the forms verge on the grotesque and unlikely, lighting can be garish and the skies become acidic. If this is what North Korea’s infrastructure might look like if it fulfilled the rhetoric and claims of its propaganda, it would still be a sad place. The streets remain empty. The scale remains crushingly anti-human.

If one reads the book from the opposite direction, Blow Up presents telling details extracted from otherwise anodyne negatives Back created on a month long stay in 2001 as a journalist in North Korea. Accepting the regime’s destruction of his “interesting” or “good” negatives, Back turns to the smallest of details in his remaining negatives to subtly lay bare the lie presented to outsiders. With an obvious nod to Antonioni, Back is looking to find truths that are hidden in plain sight and to question what is presented in an image. The photographs might be a kind of spying, a notion suggested by the military imagery which bind the two projects at the newspaper’s center point.

Alternately, in these images of war material and heavy bombing we can see a dividing line. If one has started reading from left to right, e.g. with Utopia, at this point we move from what might have been to what is

In both projects, Back is exploring the line between reality and fiction in the photographic image. By creating unreal images out of real images, he makes the real more apparent.