The new photo book on Pyongyang can be appreciated on a number of levels. Firstly, there’s the literal level: it’s a collection of well-taken photos, with captions provided by the North Korean Tourist Board.
But like it or not, whenever you see anything in which the North Koreans have had a hand, you do not take it at face value. Their propaganda, their rhetoric, is something which is so at odds with our own world view that we immediately discount what they say. And dare I say it, we are tempted to take a superior, condescending attitude towards what they view as their major achievements in constructing their Juche paradise. So, on this level, enjoy the picture of the museum attendant in her hanbok, standing in front of a digger at the Three Revolutions Exhibition. Enjoy the primitive-looking radar device which enables aircraft to land in the fog.
Not so long ago in the UK there was a book of boring postcards published: images of an almost-empty M1, photos of the latest service station, holiday snaps of the some east end tower block (demolished long ago), and a book of the 50 most crap towns in the UK. Both these books had a slightly depressing 1950s-70s feel to them, a tone of optimism which 30-50 years on is jaded and faded. The cover art of this book encourages us to post the book in this particular pigeon hole: the drab grey photo of endless anonymous concrete tower blocks; the slightly out-of-date script use for the “Welcome to” part of the title. And this is surely in part a valid categorisation: what we see in the book is a time- and spacewarp in which the inhabitants display a pride and optimism which to an outside viewer seems entirely misplaced. And the link is strengthened when you see that Martin Parr, who was behind to Boring Postcards project, provides a brief review in the press materials accompanying Charlie Crane’s work.
We can sneer, but in every photo the subject is deadly serious. There is no hint of irony in the faces of the North Koreans who are photographed. They stand to attention, proud and full square in the middle of the composition, while in the background is their daily routine — the museum, the school, the factory where they work. Virtually all the poses are the same. Browsing the book, it brought to mind one of the projects of Jung Yeondoo: the Bewitched project where he photographs a subject in their daily life, and then, in exactly the same pose, photographs the same subject fulfilling their dream scenario. The person stays the same in the two photographs; what changes are the costume and the setting. With Welcome to Pyongyang all the scenarios, the day jobs, seem interchangeable. The people in the foreground remain the same while the backgrounds and uniforms can be changed at will: different dreams, different realities.
- the photos are great, but the size of the book means that most of them are spread over two pages. Because of the binding, the book doesn’t open perfectly flat, so a little bit of the impact of the full photo is lost in the valley between the pages.
- to show I’m not biased against French publications, I’m deducting half a star for the title on the spine being written bottom-to-top, rather than top-to-bottom. So this book joins the Kim Ki-duk book as the only two items in my 100-strong Korean collection which break the usual lettering convention.
- Buy Welcome to Pyongyang at Amazon.