Exhibition visit: Above the line — photographs from the DPRK at the British Council

by Philip Gowman on 29 May, 2014

in Above the Line, British Council, DPRK, Event reports and reviews, Exhibition reviews and comment, Photography

Above the Line

A Friday lunchtime guided tour of the exhibition

There must have been a time when photographs of the DPRK were a rarity. But it’s now a regular occurrence for a newspaper to run a series of photographs from North Korea, normally proclaiming that these are unique, never-before seen images from “the world’s most secretive state”. It is perhaps natural for photographers to seek to stray away from their minders in search of the scoop. Among the better known photographers, Eric Lafforgue has reportedly now been banned from the DPRK for breaching the “Only Beautiful Please” guidelines for photographers.

The photographs on show at the British Council are not going to get anyone banned from returning to North Korea, as that would completely foil the object of the exercise. For this exhibition is part of a programme of cultural engagement between the UK and the DPRK. Indeed, not to be outdone by their cousins south of the DMZ, who signed a cultural memorandum of understanding with the UK last year during President Park’s state visit, the DPRK will be signing their own memorandum of understanding this year.

The exhibition has been a while in the planning, and is the output of the first phase of the British Council’s project – a phase which as so often with North Korea didn’t go according to plan. The objective, agreed with the DPRK embassy in London, had been to replicate a project that photojournalist Nick Danziger and writer Rory MacLean had successfully delivered in Burma. The proposal was to

run a workshop in Pyongyang. It was to be a photojournalism and writing workshop, designed so that individuals in the DPRK – a fisherman, a forester, a dancer, a teacher – could tell their stories. Over three weeks, Danziger would mentor the participants in how best to capture significant moments; and MacLean would help shape and write up the narratives. (from the exhibition catalogue)

When the team – Danziger, MacLean and British Council Director of Visual Arts and Strategic Programmes Andrea Rose – arrived in Pyongyang it became clear that the workshop wasn’t going to happen. Instead they got taken on a tour of various locations in Pyongyang and around the country (Wonsan, Nampo and Sariwon). They did however, manage to meet and talk to some of the “ordinary” people they had originally hoped to meet – and in the final section of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Rory MacLean writes up his conversations with them. Included in the collection is a fisherman, a farmer, a dolphin trainer, a war veteran, and a dancer from the Mass Games (who is the subject of the eye-catching photograph that headlines this exhibition).

Rehearsing for the Arirang Mass Games (you can just make out the word “Arirang” above the blue sequins on the shoulder). Photo: Nick Danziger.

As for the photos, these are “ordinary people” doing ordinary things: playing in the sea, working in the fields, dancing in the streets, having their hair cut. As was to be expected, the foreign guests were guided by their hosts at all times, and in the interests of the longer-term engagement the visitors played by the rules, not trying to go on solo jaunts of their own. Not much is to be gained by breaching protocols, as we seldom nowadays see a “never-before seen” photograph of North Korea.

Of much more value is the fact that the British Council have taken the trouble to translate the slogans and signs which appear in many of the photographs. Thus we learn of the Dear Leader’s thoughts on female beauty, spelled out on a notice board in a hairdressing salon:

Women should wear make-up. If women do not dress correctly or wear make-up, the beautiful appearance of our nation’s women will fade. Kim Jong Il.

The British Council did not have any editorial input from the North Korean authorities: the photos they took in North Korea were not examined or censored prior to their departure – such a precaution was hardly necessary as their visit had been escorted. The DPRK’s ambassador to the UK has been round the exhibition and only had one minor complaint: that the night-time shot Danziger took out of his Pyongyang hotel window didn’t have much in the way of city illuminations.

We encourage you to go along to the exhibition on a Friday lunchtime, when Andrea Rose gives a guided tour. The commentary provides gives extra context and insight. For example, she points out that in the newly-built wing of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum the latest statue of Kim Il Sung has been made to look like his grandson, thus emphasising the bloodline of the dynasty.

Also, make sure you pause to put on the headphones near the photographs of the hair salon. You will hear the eerie sounds of “Where are you, Dear General, we miss you” from the opera (originally directed by Kim Jong Il) A True Daughter of the Party. The song is broadcast daily over the streets of Pyongyang in tribute to the departed leader.

Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK. Photographs by Nick Danziger. British Council HQ, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN. 14 May – 25 July 2014. Opening Hours: Monday to Friday, 9:30 – 18:00. Guided tours Friday 1pm. Exhibition Notice

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

alua May 29, 2014 at 6:48 am

I wondered if you had gone to see this exhibition yet! It’s on my list of things to do, along with Steve McCurry’s Afghanistan photo exhibition.

Thanks for the Friday tip, hopefully my schedule will allow for that.

Philip Gowman May 30, 2014 at 5:36 pm

It’s interesting, but don’t expect something radically different. As Michael Rank says on his FB page: “Nice photos but not terribly revelatory.” Worth a visit though.

alua May 31, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Well, I haven’t seen any NK photos really – except one or two on the web, so it should be interesting enough for me.

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