JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2018 (here). Softcover with PVC dust jacket, 180 pages, with 111 color photographs. Includes texts by Evan Osnos and Slavoj Žižek. In an edition of 850 copies. Design by Ludy Ratoir and the artist. (Cover and spread shots elow.)
Comments/Context: In the summer of 2017, political tensions between the United States and North Korea were reaching a dangerous boiling point. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were exchanging an escalating range of taunts, threats, and personal insults through the media, while the North Koreans were systematically testing missiles with improving range and potency. As North Korea seemed to be getting closer and closer to a viable nuclear weapons system that could reach not only Japan but the major cities on the U.S west coast, curiosity about the realities of life inside North Korea once again became top of mind. Who were these extremely isolated people that were now plausibly threatening America, and what was it like to actually live there?
So that August, the Belgian photographer Max Pinckers, his assistant Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras, and the American journalist Evan Osnos traveled to Pyongyang on assignment for The New Yorker. Needless to say, it was a highly controlled and stage-managed visit, and over the four days they were there, they were shown various monuments, museums, presentations, and performances, always accompanied (and monitored) by officials, translators, guides, and other government handlers. In essence, there was really no way to see anything beyond what the North Korean government wanted them to see – they were given the standard propaganda tour and deviations from the prepared script were seemingly strictly prohibited.
Given the manufactured version of the truth they were going to be fed, Pinckers faced a difficult photographic problem – how could he make images that would both document what they were shown and somehow highlight the brittle nature of the facade? His aesthetic answer was to bathe everything in the whitening glow of a strong flash. This has several important effects – it brightens the colors and makes them pop, it creates its own shadows (thereby heightening the sense of drama), and it gives the resulting images a sheen of spotlit artificiality, in some cases like a commercial product shoot. If the North Koreans were going to give him a stage play, he was going to photograph it in a manner that exaggerated that playacting even further.
That this approach would lead to a body of photographs that delicately borders on the strange and the surreal was perhaps to be expected. But Pinckers doesn’t allow his images to drift toward overt caricature – instead, he largely lets them stand on their own, their subtle twists of reality boldly exposed by the flares of unflattering brightness. Such scenes aren’t designed to stand up to such intense scrutiny, and in a few fleeting moments, the cracks in the propaganda mask start to be visible.
The goal of the media tour was of course for North Korea to offer a particular vision of itself, where economic prosperity, social order, scientific innovation, national patriotism, military strength, and general public well being all come together in one neat package. So in many ways what Pinckers and his companions got was the “smiling happy people” show. They were shown well behaved school children in matching uniforms with red bandanas, who performed songs. They saw heroic monuments in public squares and clusters of fresh new apartment blocks. They visited several museums and an aquarium, where well dressed (and generally attractive) families intently looking at painted murals, natural history dioramas, and other seemingly incomprehensible exhibits. They traveled to the border and DMZ, where they saw vigilant soldiers standing guard over empty but well appointed conference rooms. They dined in fancy banquet halls, saw scientists at work, watched families enjoy some rifle shooting, and encountered paired portraits of the former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in nearly every classroom and performance hall.
But even in this highly controlled spectacle, Pinckers was able to photographically discover small details and glimpsed expressions that make the story of life in Pyongyang much more rich and complex, giving us a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. While performers and bystanders had clearly been told not to engage with the visitors, their genuine curiosity about the outsiders seduces a few to break the spell and take a quick glance. A young student here, a singer there, and many of the people on passing buses and subways offer expressions of open interest (and in a few cases perplexed amusement), breaking the facade of blankness. Pinckers also finds people engaged with the news (actively reading shared public newspapers), and in one case, having a seemingly improvised picnic.
Other small details point to both the overt staging of the events Pinckers and his companions experienced and the larger impossibility of completely controlling what the visitors saw, leaving a few fleeting openings to capture a version of North Korea that was less than completely perfect. Rickety old fishing boats intrude into a river view from a grand stone patio. The symmetry of hand towels hung on a line to dry is interrupted by one which hangs down too far. Two hotel telephones offer different times and inverted floral doilies, swimming boys don’t all raise their arms, a decorative palm tree turns out to be plastic, and carefully arrayed ping pong paddles have fraying rubber surfaces.
These discoveries then begin to take on a more ominous tone. A mushroom cloud explodes on a TV screen. An escalator drops down into empty darkness. The snappy modern apartment blocks are surrounded by eerily empty streets. The perfectly arranged fruit and vegetable stand feels completely false, the display unattended and the few shining watermelons and tomatoes seemingly untouchable. And for one brief moment, a puff of black smoke rises up into the sky from behind a building, perhaps a smouldering fire taking place just out of view. And then the performance ends, and the crisp red velvet curtain closes.
We know now that the political jockeying changed course soon after Pinckers’ visit, and the two leaders held an historic summit meeting in June of 2018. But in many ways, North Korea remains a stubborn mystery to those in the West, and these photographs tell an intricate story of controlled appearances and false truths. Trying to get underneath the blanket of state propaganda on a single four day trip is a tall order, but by turning each stop on the itinerary into an exaggerated spectacle, Pinckers has given us both a sense of the mannered display that took place and a few tantalizing sightings of something more real.
Collector’s POV: Max Pinckers is represented by Gallery Sofie Van de Velde in Antwerp (here) and Tristan Lund in London (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.