At a factory or in the street; at the zoo or at a doctor’s office; alone, with family, or in a group: thirty-one portraits of North Koreans proudly face the visitors at the Jardin d’été in Arles. The men seem to be standing at attention in their suits—the fetish outfit of the powerful Kims who have ruled the country since 1948—and it is not clear whether they are wearing uniforms or work clothes. The women are also often dressed in uniforms, but are more likely to show a hint of a smile. The children are just as serious as the adults.
During five trips taken over three years, Stéphan Gladieu tried to get closer to the inhabitants of this autarkic country. “When we hear about North Korea in the media, it’s always about the totalitarian regime, the Kim dynasty, nuclear weapons, but we never hear anything about the population. There are 25 million people living there, but we hardly ever wonder what their lives are really like or what they have to look forward to. It’s more the country itself, its oddity, that attracts attention and fascinates. For me, it was essential to focus on the people.”
Stéphan Gladieu found it was impossible to move around at will or unescorted anywhere in North Korea. This constant surveillance partly conditioned the series. “I chucked the idea of reportage, since my guides, who were handpicked by the authorities, could consent or refuse to take me to certain places and they served as my interpreters. They monitored the photographic production, and left a palpable imprint. Hence the proposal of a more artistic series.” In his travels, Stéphan Gladieu learned to come to terms and negotiate with his companions, who remained constant throughout the project, in order to offer the broadest possible panorama of North Korean society. His requests were often met with refusal. “I had a lot of trouble photographing elderly or disabled people. You can feel it in the project, the age range is quite narrow. North Koreans have a very strong relationship with aesthetics, with perfection. I was unable to photograph a construction site. Not because it’s sensitive, but because the building was not finished so it could not be shown.”
The photographer also chose to play with the iconographic codes typical of North Korean propaganda by overdoing the iconic value of the images, specifically by using the flash to foreground the subject, to the point that one sometimes wonders if it is a photomontage. This impression is reinforced by the kitschy, old-fashioned, yet strangely timeless feel of the places and outfits. “There is a duality between the real and the unreal; we don’t know where to draw the line, and the surreal aspect of the situation is felt very acutely. But what you see in the pictures is the reality! People really dress like that, they really exist in this totally theatrical setting.”
Despite the constraints, Stéphan Gladieu was able to carve out some freedom by playing on the associations between the backdrop and his models. This space of freedom was also opened up thanks to the underlying cultural differences between him and his North Korean guides. “We had no social, historical, religious, or pictorial references in common, so the way we read the image was not at all the same. I know we never saw the same things. And that’s what’s really crazy. So I never felt like my images were being controlled because they never saw what I saw. The opposite is also true: I can’t tell what they saw in my images that made them let me go through with it. It remains a mystery to me. But there is inevitably a part that they liked and that corresponded to the way they see themselves. This adds a dose of realism to my work.” This realism is what turns these fascinating images into a testimony of life under the Kim dynasty in the late 2010s.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
“Stéphan Gladieu, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Portraits”, outdoor exhibition at the Jardin d’été. Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles. Until September 26, 2021. More information here.