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With our "On That Day" series, photographers are invited to take us behind the scenes of one of their photographs. Today, Philippe Chancel tells us about a compromised photo session in North Korea.


© Philippe Chancel

“Pyongyang, November 5, 2012

On my itinerary, there was only one activity scheduled for 10 a.m. that morning: the war museum. I was returning to the place I had first discovered seven years ago. I remembered taking pictures of a child rollerblading there along the monumental gate that marks the entrance to a huge, mineral and totalitarian esplanade. The imposing building at the back did not exist then. And for good reason: this was the new Victorious War Museum, as my guardian angel pointed out to me, a symbol of North Korea's firepower and will to triumph throughout its history.

Una, my guide and interpreter, got me permission to photograph the exhibition halls, which, as she again pointed out, had never been granted to a foreign artist before. A spectacular entrance, a shiny hall all in marble and gilding, two staircases converging towards a sculpted Kim Il-Sung bursting with such color as to put Jeff Koons to shame.

Beyond this luxurious and megalomaniac kitsch pageantry, I as amazed to notice the striking resemblance with another "palace" that I knew well from having photographed it two years earlier: the 7-star Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. The suspended painted portrait of Kim Jong Un could very well been that of Sheikh Zayed in the main entrance, surrounded by the same decorum, looking just as martial in his Dishdasha (long garment worn by the men of the Arabian Peninsula).

I framed my image with a juxtaposition in mind, that of the one coming to life in my viewfinder with the mental image of the other resurfacing, to the extent that I was able to remember it in that specific moment. Later, I would realize that the image provided tangible proof that it was possible to see in the shot in North Korea what humanity looks like today as it is conceived, desired, manufactured and staged by the market society that dominates the planet.

I was captivated by the careful and always outrageous staging of acts of bravery and war exploits when a man suddenly rushed towards me, sweating profusely. It looked to me that he was on the verge of having a stroke. He loosened his tie, took a deep breath, and paused for a long beat, gazing intently at my face, which I attempted to keep impassive. At long last, he spoke to me in a tone that was both firm and imploring.


© Philippe Chancel

The axe fell quickly and I found myself forced to erase my memory card. I refused, procrastinated, relativized, sought an explanation by questioning Una with my eyes, but she remained enigmatic. No need to get upset, I was not responsible for this state of panic. So I handed him my memory card as a deposit, obtaining from him a vague promise not to touch it.

Why this mix-up? Had my authorization not reached the top realm of museum hierarchy? Was my presence reported without the deputy director seeing fit to inform his director? The deputy director was my distraught, fiftyish man with the stocky physique and the face marked by hardship. I could sense he was very worried about the situation and I understood that he was taking a big risk, i.e. forced labor in the camps. I left it to Una's goodwill, who probably also had some concerns of her own.

Just as I was about to leave, a military guide came to the rescue, all smiles and impeccable in her uniform, who, upon seeing how frustrated I was, reassured me and let me know that things would get better. Nothing is ever hopeless in the Land of the Morning Calm. We returned to the hotel and my guardian angel went to talk to her committee to try to unblock the situation. When I met up with her again in the afternoon, she was smiling. Could she have resolved the situation?

Two days later, we returned to the war museum. The deputy director and the charming guide came out to meet us on the huge esplanade. Mr. Deputy Director, Ri Tok Son, had my camera card with him, which he ceremoniously handed over to me after extracting it from his pocket and removing a sheet of protective paper folded in four. I hastened to surreptitiously check that none of the photos had been deleted. They hadn't.

We were therefore to continue our abruptly interrupted visit. I couldn't believe it, and yet it was really happening. Everything was fine. This was the second time in North Korea that, just as I was thinking that the sky was falling on me, I got away with it. A few days later, I completed my fifth trip to the Land of the Kims."

 

By Phillipe Chancel

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