Pékin Fine Arts is pleased to present 3DPRK, a collaborative project with Slovenian photographer Matjaž Tančič (b. 1982) and Beijing-based North Korean art specialists Koryo Studio, on exhibit in China for the first time.
Matjaž Tančič’s portraits of local people from across North Korea were photographed using a 3D stereoscopic technique. This landmark collection shows not only the citizens of Pyongyang – North Korea’s showcase capital – but also ordinary workers, farmers, educators, athletes and entertainers living in Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city, as well as from elsewhere across the country.
The team of five (photographer, producer, two North Korean guides, one driver) also photographed soldiers at the DMZ at the North-South Korean border, and visited schools, hospitals and leisure facilities considered the pride of the reclusive state. Officially invited to document North Korea in 3D, Slovenian photographer Matjaž Tančič aimed to portray something of the people who live there, stripped of rhetoric.
Choosing to take portraits of people in North Korea invites controversy, criticism and significant challenges. In the eyes of the Western world, North Korea is one of the few countries where photographic voyeurism is celebrated. Working within the rules of the North Korean regime invites accusations of being naïve – or, worse, a ‘useful idiot’ – of taking on the work of a complex and powerful propaganda machine.
North Korea is one of the world’s most restrictive societies; all visitors must be invited, and all are required to travel with official guides. Foreign press and picture taking is restricted, and there is an inherent distrust of Western photographers. Capturing a ‘rare glimpse’ of a North Korean taps into a colonial desire to be the ‘first’, and thus captures the interest of a Western audience. But that ‘rare glimpse’ has become soxymoronically common, we can now call it a trope of North Korean photography.
Forgotten, or dismissed, in this never-ending quest for unseen images, however, are the subjects of these ‘rare glimpses’ – the North Korean people whose images have been captured. These people are among those with the least personal agency on Earth, decision-making within their lives often governed by the politics and principles of The State. Hard enough in most circumstances, but more so in North Korea – how do you capture the authentic experience of a person in a photograph?
Tančič works predominantly in 3D, a technique that requires patience and understanding from the subject – standing motionless for minutes while multiple photographs are captured to cover the requisite perspectives. In a country where people are wary of the Western-wielded camera, persuading people not disposed to prolong the process of taking photographs in public spaces was no small task.
These are not reportage photographs, taken off the cuff with or without the subject’s knowledge. These are posed and painstakingly explained images. Out of the frame of each picture is a supporting cast of producers, translators, advisors, bosses, managers and guides – describing the technique, explaining the intent, collecting information, cracking jokes and suggesting staging. These moments are recorded in a documentary video that accompanies the exhibition.
As with all portraits, these photographs depict living human beings, upon whose gaze audiences may project what they will. Each protagonist agreed to be photographed, and was well aware that their image would be exhibited to a wider world. Perhaps it is the individual in daily life that shines out the most from these photographs; each portrait has its own distinct personality, ranging from disdain to pride.
The unique and weird beauty of the 3D technique used for each photograph ultimately highlights the individual nature of the people posing for each shot, and the various layers that make up the surreal theatrical set that is the DPRK today.
“I was born in Yugoslavia, in a formerly communist country that no longer exists. The first time I ever travelled abroad by myself was to Cuba, and, after that, Russia. I’ve now lived in China for the last three years, and my most recent project – 3DPRK – took me to North Korea. Most people know these countries almost entirely as clichés. We only picture the people there as those on the wrong end of the rifle in Hollywood movies, or through short distillations of suffering and aggression in newspapers.
“The further away the country is, in terms of geography and culture, the greater the mistrust and misunderstanding of its people. The media’s very particular focus on North Korea also ends up entirely obscuring the actual people who live there, until the only North Koreans we see in the newspapers are identical marching soldiers. When I was invited by Koryo Studio to do a project in North Korea, I knew that I didn’t want to tell the same story you see on every TV channel.
“Portrayals of North Korea tend to veer into extremes: sensationalistic demonization on one side, or ungrounded idealization on the other; both erase the actual human beings who live there. Instead of this, I wanted to focus on the group that forms the core of every society – people; of different ages, statuses and occupations, and that anyone, anywhere, could identify with. It seemed simple, but it quickly became clear why there aren’t many similar projects around.
“With every posed portrait there is a need to build trust through an exchange between photographer and subject. Despite common mistrust and the language barrier, we managed to build that bridge between us. The help of a translator, and even interested onlookers, allowed me to bypass the more commonly experienced relationship between Western photographers in North Korea and the photographed, typified by a lack of direct interaction or explanation of purpose.
“Among the more than 100 portraits captured while traveling around the county, there is a boxer learning to ice skate, an art student painting in the forest, and a worker in a steel complex. They’re the people the world ignores because they neither fit into the domestic propaganda of a mighty, triumphant North Korea, nor into the international image of a country that can only be castigated for its crimes or mocked for its poverty.
“Leaving this dichotomy entirely, all I seek to do is present the actual people I met in North Korea.” Matjaž Tančič
Notes From 3DPRK’s Producer
“One of our North Korean guides was asked to act as a technical assistant, which involved learning how to operate the flash; he took to the task with gusto and a hint of swagger, proud of his new knowledge. The guide would explain the process in detail to the subjects, whose instinct was to dart off as soon as the first flash went.
“There were, of course, many moments off-camera that exposed something of the real nature of life in North Korea. An older man working on a farm took off his jacket as soon as his photograph was taken, and visibly relaxed. ‘Can I capture one of him like this?’ Matjaž implored to our guide. ‘No, no,’ was the response, ‘it is too shameful to be photographed without a uniform, he would not want it; let’s go.’
“Nervous and slightly uncomfortable, subjects giggled and squirmed while the process was explained to them, then the camera was ready and the smile often disappeared. Passersby considered our team with curiosity, or suspicion; others with an eagerness to take part. We gradually established a rhythm over the ten‐day shoot. The guides encouraged a swift process, not wanting to attract too much attention; Tančič, keen to capture as much as possible on this rare and precious opportunity, worked as fast as they would let him.” Vicky Mohieddeen, Koryo Studio
About the exhibition
Date: 13 December 2015 – 20 February 2016
Venue: Pékin Fine Arts
Courtesy of the artist and Pékin Fine Arts, for more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone (8610) 5127 3220.