This article was originally published on VICE France.
The portrait is a powerful tool in North Korea. Throughout the country – in the streets, on public transport and adorning the walls of museums and hotels – you’ll find the faces of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, constant reminders of Supreme Leaders past and present.
Photographer Stephan Gladieu went to North Korea to capture a very different kind of portrait. Between 2016 and 2020 he made three trips from France to the totalitarian state to photograph the average North Korean citizen.
Through the images, now collected in the book North Korea, Gladieu offers the stage to everyday people, temporarily removing the spotlight from their larger-than-life dictator. I spoke to him about the project.
VICE: Why North Korea?
Stephan Gladieu: Like plenty of others, I’ve been fascinated by the country for ages. But I never really knew why I was so fascinated. When you think about it, North Korea is a small country, with 25 million people and no natural resources. So my main goal was to figure out why the place fascinates so many. We know almost nothing about it, aside from its history. I needed to go see it with my own eyes.
And you wanted to focus in particular on regular people.
When the media talks about North Korea, they talk about a dynasty: a grandfather, a father, a son. They talk about international tensions, nuclear threats, but when do they ever talk about the North Korean people? What are their lives like? What’s an average day like?
Did you tell the authorities about the project when applying for your visa?
Initially, no. I couldn’t be that explicit. You’re dealing with people who think within an ideological, cultural and sociological framework diametrically opposed to our own.
And yet, when I did meet with authorities, they showed a surprising interest in my work. I made it clear to them that I wasn’t in North Korea to take pictures of empty places. You can already see those in lots of books. I make it clear that I’m a portraitist – that it’s people I’m interested in. I told them my project was purely for art’s sake and not journalistic.
What are some constraints you ran into?
The first was being accompanied all the time. You arrive at the airport, somebody comes to get you. They take you through customs, they put you in a van, they take you to your hotel, they give you your schedule and establish exactly what you’ll be doing for the next 15 days. What seaside resort you’ll be going to; where you’re going to eat.
They know, from the first day to the last, where you’re going to go. That also means they know, potentially, what you’re going to see and photograph. Working within this kind of framework is a huge constraint for a photographer who comes from a democracy.
The second constraint was the fact that, in North Korea, iconography as we know it is almost nonexistent. Their iconography is propaganda, and consists mainly of portraits of the founders. Then there are painted and ceramic frescoes, also dedicated to the glory of the regime and its leaders. All of it is subject to strict rules that stem from an obsessive quest for perfection. Also, individual portraits don’t exist – except of the leaders – because the individual only exists in the context of a group.
Have you been tempted at any point to condemn the regime through your photos?
Some people have criticised me for not showing mistreatment and famine. I have two questions for those people: first, do they seriously think the North Korean authorities wanted me to show that? It’s a totalitarian country. No one would have ever taken me to see those things. It seems obvious. Also, how am I supposed to modify their system? It’s not something I can change.
Has the project changed any preconceived notions you might have had about North Korea and its people?
Well, what it did do was confirm just how mind-boggling the dictatorship is. Not that I doubted it before I went over, but now, I’m even more convinced of the regime’s power and its stranglehold on the population. And yet I did see North Koreans who were capable of being happy, of relaxing at a Sunday picnic or even having fun at a theme park.
Of course, you also sense profound stress in the people around you. Like in any dictatorship, it stems from their fear of the regime.
What’s their view of the Western world?
Their way of looking at the world is different from ours. We may baulk at their values, but they fear ours. Right now, they feel their country is beginning to open up. I’ve seen some very striking changes happen over the past couple of years: new dress codes, colours, more stylish and warmer clothing, the advent of electric bikes.
North Korean society is in the midst of changing, even as we speak. Honestly, the society I photographed probably won’t even exist ten years down the road.