Alice Wielinga has the soul of an intrepid explorer, going where many dare not tread. “For me, the drive to tell the story is more important than the fear.” In 2004, she visited South Korea, where she heard a young woman describe North Korea as “a big black hole in the road map that nobody could go to.” This fascinated Wielinga, who resolved to go there, and eventually did, accompanied by her father. But how much of the grim reality of life under dictatorial rule was she allowed to observe? And how much could her art reveal, limited to the scenes and people she managed to capture in the course of traveling over 2,500 kilometers in and beyond Pyongyang?
Wielinga asserts that “keeping your eyes open” is sufficient to learning a lot about the sequestered kingdom, even while admitting that one is not free to wander about as an inquisitive photographer would in most other nations. She relied on the exchanges she had with her “minders” and various citizens within her allotted perimeter to formulate her notions about the place, informed as well by what caught her attention. To her credit, she strived to remain objective, set aside preconceptions gleaned from prior study, and work with whatever images she could create from what passed in front of her — staged as much of it must certainly have been. But is that art at the expense of political clarity? And can art produced within a despotic realm be judged separately from the global criticism of human rights violations and hyper-militarism that it invokes? Wielinga visited North Korea in 2013 during the regime’s blustering rocket test launches, but there is no hint of the world’s panic and reproach in her North Korea series. “It was a tense time,” she says, “and foreigners were being advised to leave. But everything seemed normal to me. I saw soldiers, but they were planting trees.”
Wielinga’s project compels the viewer to ask questions about photography as eyewitness truth versus photography as state-directed propaganda. Wielinga’s sly compositing of vintage propaganda visuals (going back to the 1970s) with her own field shots juxtapose the garish-colored, Marxist-flavored “reality” that Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-il have constructed to whitewash their oppressive rule with the grayer, grittier, and decidedly sadder reality she was able to record on her government-packaged rounds. The contrast puts one in mind of Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic 1937 “Breadline” (Great Depression poor lined up for bread in front of a billboard of a jolly family driving in a car and a headline that boasts of America’s “World’s Highest Standard of Living”). Wielinga was not blind to the Oz-like special effects designed to camouflage the regime’s bankruptcy. She was given a tour of a state-of-the-art hospital where the few patients there wore garments identical to those of the staff. With an eye attuned to such details, she became acquainted with the illusionism particular to her tour’s scheme and made it the point of her work. The compassion in her effort lies in exposing this disjunction, even while she resists any clear verdict. “It’s not anti-North Korea, and it’s not pro-North Korea … My work is not about Kim Jong-un, it’s about the people who live there.” To some this will read as naïveté, to others as fresh eyes on a loaded subject.
To Wielinga, the propaganda is just another part of the complex narrative of North Korea — representing the laudable, if imposed, aspirations of the people, whose dreams should be given due respect. The fact of their subjugation by a totalitarian state more interested in building a menacing war machine than adequately feeding its people is left somewhere between the lines, ambiguous, open to discussion. It is not the photographer’s job to judge, Wielinga believes. And indeed she has fused the role of photo-documentarian with that of interpretive artist, which raises another question: is an artist obliged to champion the cause of political victims wherever they find themselves, or is it honorable to stay focused on the impressionistic and happenstance — the random moment, the immediate emotions — and the purely pictorial, and leave the denser issues to scholars and pundits? One thing is certain: making us think about these questions is reason enough to follow Wielinga on her far-flung journeys. After North Korea, she has ventured into the slums inhabited by Afghan refugees in Islamabad, Pakistan — and her shots are mixed with elements of Medieval Islamic paintings of sultans’ castles. “I’m building castles out of the slums where these people have no identity. I’m building a dream for them for the future.” Whatever one thinks of her work, there is undeniable courage in her pursuit, and rare target value in where her camera takes us.
“Alice Wielinga: North Korea, Life Between Propaganda and Reality” is on exhibit at Eglise Saint-Blaise in Arles, France, through September 20. Her work can also be seen in “North Korean Perspectives” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago until October 4.
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