A mother, her face twisted with fear and grief, holds her unconscious daughter in her arms. Their faces and clothing are stained with ominous red spots. All around them are bodies and debris. What disaster has just struck? A terrorist attack? A plane crash? A war? Nothing of the sort. None of the scenes featured in Anxiety On / Off are “real.” Other photos, taken from farther away, reveal details that leave no room for doubt: spotlights, reflectors, plastic mannequins. The shot was staged.
To shoot her series “Rehearsal of Anxiety” (2016-2018), the Korean photographer brought together a hundred people, including volunteer actors and technicians. She asked her models to reflect on the anguish they might feel in the face of a tragic situation where they have lost loved ones. “One thing that surprised me throughout the process is the fact that the voluntary actors’ expressions of anxiety and sorrow appeared as imitations of what they have seen and picked up from somewhere else. In other words, what many people, including myself, had indirectly experienced through the media, was governing their actual emotions,” writes Anna Lim at the end of Anxiety On/Off.
In addition to this series, the book features other works by the South Korean. One element they all have in common is their exploration of anxiety-provoking situations in the media, and in photography in particular. In “Simulation of Tragedy” (2016), Anna Lim documented a full-scale emergency response and rescue training exercise in a residential complex targeted for demolition. Soldiers, police officers and firefighters bustled around wounded mannequins in the middle of ruins, fires and smoke.
Lim’s interest in life’s most distressing situations is no accident. Part of it comes from growing up near a military base near North Korea. “I hadn’t really thought about it before I started this project, but I believe the sensations I’d felt in my childhood, which is to say, the memories that are a blend of reality and imagination, have served as a necessary thesis for my works.”
It is worth noting that anxiety is probably more prominent in South Korea than in other societies. As pointed out by Hye Young Shin, an art critic who pens a lengthy analysis of Anna Lim’s work in the book, the Land of the Morning Calm has lived through the ordeal of a number of fatal accidents linked to faulty construction and to the non-adherence to safety standards during Korea’s rapid industrialization and development. Not to mention the threatening presence of their neighbor to the north.
While this context is very specific, Anna Lim’s photos have a sadly universal dimension. Because she doesn’t try to hide the fabricated aspect of these scenes of disaster, the viewer is freed from the order to feel empathy and horrified shock. The photographer thus prompts us to reflect on the visual conventions and the construction of these types of images, which are so ubiquitous in the media. Creating and nurturing angst appears almost as easy as flipping a switch.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and a former editor at Polka and ARTE.
Anxiety On/Off by Anna Lim, with texts in English by Yeon Ha Choi and Hye Young Shin, Kehrer, 128 pages, 38 euros.