North Korea is changing – slowly and virtually imperceptibly. The impression is of an extremely isolated country, and it is also often subject to many prejudices. Xiomara Bender has got to know this hermetically sealed country over recent years, like virtually no other western photographer. In September 2019 she returned once again on the occasion of the 71st anniversary of the founding of the state, taking picture with a Leica SL2. We spoke with the photographer about her experiences.
What kind of experiences did you have on your most recent trip?
The last trip was very intense. I was there for a total of twelve days, of which only three were spent in the capital, Pyongyang.
Based on your many years of experience, were you able on this occasion to enlarge the “small opening” in the propaganda wall that Dr. Stefan Grüll spoke about in your book? (Kehrer Verlag, 2016)
Yes, a little more every year, which may be due to the trust I’ve gained from the people I work with there, and whom I’ve known for close on ten years now. But we all know that, as a tourist, you can never really walk around alone and unobserved. However, with the current leader, Kim Jong Un, a perceptible new common era has begun. People are beginning to be emancipated. Tentatively, cautiously and just a little to start with. There will be more for sure. The fact that we don’t hear anything about this is because of the isolation, that the system maintains with bizarre perfection. But it’s also because of us.
As you already know the rules that apply for a visit and the possibilities for taking pictures over there, was it easier or more difficult to work this time?
It’s always a matter of which guides accompany me. They’re not always the same ones, because real friendships and relationships with western visitors are not encouraged. After so many trips that can’t always be avoided, and good connections with the agency are helpful. I don’t think there are any guides in North Korea who don’t know me, or at least have heard of me. Time and again I hear amusing jokes because I am, as they say, both a blessing and a curse. Those who have known me for years increasingly understand what I am trying to capture with my camera, and they help me achieve it.
I have a pretty good impression of how everyday life unfolds in many places, but even so you don’t really get to see it. Despite all the friendliness and the increasing diversity in the country, it remains an ideologically-based, one party dictatorship with a leadership cult and the persecution of political dissenters, without freedom of movement or freedom of the press. I think it’s wrong to simply reduce North Korea to this aspect; yet it would be equally fatal to overlook it.
From your perspective, how has the country changed over recent years?
North Korea today is unrecognisable compared to the country I found on my first visit in 2011. The cityscape is becoming increasingly more modern, people dress more individually, mobile phones and traffic are no longer rarities. Liberties, however, have not really increased, but the provisions situation is better, the hunger years have been a thing of the past for a long time, a real middle class has developed in the cities. Admittedly, leisure, sports and educational facilities are initially only available to a privileged portion of the cities’ populations, but can be seen in a burgeoning self-determination. In addition to the already existing Masik-Ryong ski resort, Kim Jong Un is currently having a second “Davos” built. The plan is for it to be completed in one to two years.
The Leica SL 2 is not inconspicuous – how did people react to it?
Considering the course of this slow transformation, the Leica SL2 is an eye-catcher, of course. They can see its elegant construction, and its silence both amazes and delights them. I’m not normally very happy to let my camera out of my hands, but over there it gives me great pleasure. Some portraits of me were taken by North Koreans. It’s an interplay of slowly changing social structures and my camera as a tool of communication, which now supports me more than just non-verbally.
Did you focus on a new theme this time around?
I continue searching for the individual, rather than the collective that we all know. In my project North Korea. The Power Of Dreams, I consider it important that the pictures convey the degree of proximity to the people portrayed, with the hope of awakening an empathic curiosity in the viewer.
I think that empathy can only arise when anonymity has been put aside. Someone who is able to feel it is less likely to give into the prejudices that still define our image of North Korea. The world is not black and white, and neither is North Korea.
So people are at the centre of your photography?
The people in my photos are both ambassadors and projection surfaces. The pictures aim to inspire and motivate the viewer to open up to foreignness, to dare to engage in an interpretive dialogue with the photographs, allowing their own particular image to arise: stepping out of and beyond the picture. People and the system function at the interpersonal level and, due to the slow process of modernisation, everyday life is no longer so congruent, so it’s always a great delight to overcome the “barriers” by means of a smile or a face looking towards you. With a simple smile, sincere curiosity and, above all, no instructional arrogance, virtually anything’s possible. I think it’s clear in my photographs that they were only ever taken with the permission of those portrayed. The empathy I feel when taking pictures, the feelings and emotional horizons of the protagonists captured in the photographs, should be visible and at eye level, because under the existing conditions, looking into faces is probably the only way to recognise the real changes in this country, and to be able to continue documenting the process over the years.
Xiomara Bender was born in Basel in 1987. After spending time in India and after finishing school, Bender attended the Technical School of Arts in Berlin. She has been working as a freelance photographer since graduating. Her book, North Korea. The Power of Dreams (Kehrer Verlag), appeared in 2016, earning silver at the 2018 German Photo Book Awards of the Hochschule der Medien. Her work has appeared in Stern and Zeit, among others. Bender is currently working on a new book on North Korea.