For the Record: Stephan Gladieu on documenting the citizens of North Korea

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Currently on show at L’ensemble des Rencontres d’Arles, Gladieu’s special portraits – shot under rigorous constraints by North Korean officials – offer a carefully curated window into one of the world’s most deceptive countries

Standing before their exhibition, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Portraits , at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles , Stephan Gladieu encapsulates the feat of practicing documentary pictures in one of the world’s most deceptive countries. “Without mastering the language or choosing my [own] movements, ” he says, “I had to invent a framework of freedom within the constraints imposed upon me. ”

A photographer for 30 years, Gladieu is not any stranger to immersing themselves in communities far from his native France. The opacity of North Korea generally needled him, and a n assignment designed for Hyundai in South Korea only piqued his attention further. “[North Korean citizens] are completely absent using their media, ” he says. “When you look at the press, there is political analysis, worry about diplomatic conflict and a nuclear arms race, but the population is usually nowhere… There’s no factor of who they are. ”

Gladieu attempted to coordinate an journey to the country 15 years ago, yet didn’t want to participate in an organised press trip. Simply by chance, he met the delegate to North Korea in Paris, whose url to a senior figure within Pyongyang helped him press through an idea for a number of citizen portraits. Gladieu understood he’d be stringently chaperoned the whole time, and his collection is shaped by plus dependent upon these conditions.

A group of workers cause in the swimming pool of the foods factory in Pyongyang’s Mangyongdae district © Stephan Gladieu.

A young couple standing on Kim Il Sung Sq . © Stephan Gladieu.

“I had [the chaperones] on my back: ‘Have you got it? Let us go! We have a routine to keep, ’” Gladieu recounts. “I couldn’t say: ‘I need one more. ’ No way. ” It was by making sure he was “easy to control, reassuring, and transparent” that will Gladieu was able to build a family member amount of trust, enabling your pet to return five times among 2017 and 2020, for approximately 15 days each time. He requested access to multiple professional sectors – surveying the particular saleswoman, the laborer, the particular civil servant – alongside anonymous citizens during their away from time. Yet it is hard to say just how much of Northern Korea’s social fabric remained hidden from the sliver associated with local life he had been shown.  

When it reached shooting, Gladieu would trip a predetermined area to find out who was around, before performing each shot swiftly and instinctively, over the course of five minutes. Simply by intensifying the images – using flash not only to amplify the colour palette, yet to highlight figures and action in the background –  he was able to exercise their own artistic vision within the vices imposed upon him. Within the foreground, his subjects situated themselves as they wished to: this individual didn’t direct them or even interact.

Interestingly, the constant surveillance wasn’t quite as debilitating as one might assume. In fact , it was telling. “Constraints match the vision they have of themselves, ” he says. “The vision they want to show of them selves. ” There was no involvement on Gladieu’s final picture selection, meaning that, ultimately, the particular series yields a double gaze: “My white Traditional western gaze, and concurrently, their particular self-perception. ”

Jo Hyang Mi, Jang Yun Hui, Ri El Bok, Kim Bok Bad thing and Choe Hyong Ju pose in the ship eating place uniform © Stephan Gladieu.

Dr Ri Tu Rim examines Miss Yu Hyang Suk at the Zhenghsu Pyongyang textile factory © Stephan Gladieu.

Yu Gyong Il, an employee at Pyongyang wire plus cable factory © Stephan Gladieu.

Chiefly, Gladieu wanted to create “an anthropological frame of reference, ” akin to the “scrupulous” legacy of August Sander, which mixed documentary photography along with fine art. There were also additional visual touchstones, from 13th century religious paintings to communist propaganda and contemporary marketing.  

One iconographic hallmark he encountered during the trip was the omnipresence associated with uniform — corroborating participation in the collective, while obfuscating individual agency. This viewpoint is reflected just as conspicuously in North Korea’s photo taking practices. “Individual portraits don’t exist, ” Gladieu says. “When I looked in photographic archives, they’re rare… Except for leaders. When you are photographed, from preschool in order to university, it’s in a team; then in the army, at your workplace, at weddings. ” Also during leisure time, students continue to be dressed in school uniform, simply because they don’t own alternative clothing.

The first place Gladieu had been brought to on arrival in North Korea was the zoo (“Very interesting, already, as being a choice! ”) In his portrait of a family here, the mismatched parents emanate the cultural unintelligibility, immediately disorienting the viewer: “a guy with anachronistic style plus rigid posture beside the decidedly modern-looking woman, that you might cross paths with in Paris or Baltimore. ” Muddling the framework even further, they pose alongside an affectionate pair of fake penguins. Such juxtapositions create what Gladieu calls “a secondary reading”; an outsider’s perspective that is humorous, although never intended as mocking.  

Children pose in Pyongyang Main Zoo © Stephan Gladieu.

Kim Hyang plus Kim Ju Hyang create at the Meari shooting range © Stephan Gladieu.

Elsewhere is a picture of a man doing his grocery shopping. The hyperstylisation from the shelves is authentic, even if – as within many of Gladieu’s frames – this reads as theatrically staged. “People have said, ‘I love how you styled the décor here. ’ But we are in reality! The people I photographed are where I discovered them: at work, in the grocery aisle, ” he says. “I never moved anyone more than 50 or 60 metres. ” 

Cultural confusion permeated the entire process of making the particular series. At a shooting range, for example , Gladieu photographed 2 hostesses who positioned them selves, of their own accord, in a motion picture way: back-to-back, with a North Korean gun and a semi-automatic 9mm Makarov pistol, correspondingly. “I said to my group they resembled Bond ladies, ” he recalls. “After a moment of silence, I asked why my interpreter wasn’t translating what I stated, and he asked: ‘What are Bond girls? ’”

“In fact, ” Gladieu concludes, “every time I thought the context was going to be complicated, it wasn’t. And matters I thought would be simple had been hell to land. They didn’t perceive what I noticed. And the inverse was correct. I didn’t see the actual saw. ”


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Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Portraits is certainly on show at Les Rencontres d’Arles until 26 September 2021

A group of children get manual bumper cars with Mangyondae amusement park © Stephan Gladieu.

Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris, france. Her words have been released in the International New York Periods, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and others.

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