THE PLANK AUGUST 12, 2009
A couple days ago I linked to Sarah Wang's account of her trip to North Korea. Ever since then I haven't been able to get the pictures Wang took out of my mind. The photos themselves are quite unremarkable. Taken on the sly--Wang's North Korean minders forbid photography, explaining, "Our people don't like to be photographed"--they show common street scenes: two schoolboys huddling under an umbrella, people going out during a break in the rain, someone riding his bike. If you didn't know that they were taken in North Korea, the photos could be from any Asian city.
But that's what makes the photos so powerful: their quotidian quality. Most of the pictures we see of North Koreans are of stone-faced soldiers or giant crowds performing strange card tricks. They give an air of unreality to the whole place--even if you know, on an intellectual level, that the place is terribly repressive. But then you see Wang's photos of North Koreans going about their daily lives and you look more closely at those photos and you realize that you don't see anyone who looks well-fed or particularly well-clothed and that the streets are strangely empty and, all of a sudden, the reality of the horrors of living in North Korea become all too clear. Little wonder the North Korean government doesn't want anyone snapping pictures of its citizens. Kudos to Wang for finding a way around that ban.