As a photographer, how do you make insightful work about a place where media is as heavily controlled as it is in North Korea, ‘a big black hole on the world map’ where government propaganda is ubiquitous and stage managed photo opportunities are the norm?
For Alice Wielinga the solution was to take that propaganda and imposed control and turn it back on itself, by creating detailed composite images that blend familiar North Korean propaganda paintings with her own photographs of the secretive state. The resulting series North Korea, a Life between Propaganda and Reality, has been on display at the Les Rencontres d’Arles festival following Wielinga’s win in the portfolio review prize at the previous year’s festival.
Wielinga’s composites, which each take weeks to produce, are richly detailed vistas which could easily be dismissed at first glance as conventional propaganda. Closer inspection however reveals incongruities between the painted elements and the new photographic ones. Alongside the stylised faces of smiling workers and bold soldiers, she inserts the tired people and emaciated landscapes she photographed during her lengthy travels in the communist state.
The result is a powerful defusing of the rhetoric of North Korea propaganda by contrasting it with the realities that lie behind it. Equally though these photographs act as compelling metaphors for the act of looking at propaganda, a process where every detail must be scrutinised and nothing can be overlooked or taken at face value.
Wielinga’s work with photographic composites goes back some time. At one stage working with a more a more conventional documentary approach, she describes feeling a dissatisfaction with producing images which did not fully express her feelings about the subjects she was documenting. ‘I wanted to depict my dreams and fantasies beyond just documenting’.
Like other photographers before her, notably the Australian war photographer Frank Hurley, this feeling of dissatisfaction led Wielinga to experiment with composite images. In spite of the enormous angst in the photographic community over the problem of photo manipulation, Wielinga’s work is a powerful example of the fact that image manipulation is not always detrimental to the truth. Her composites are a reminder that transparency is more important than method, and in some circumstances a manipulated image can lead to more insights than an untouched one.
In making these composites about North Korea Wielinga explains that she sought ‘to express my fascination for this country and the amazement I felt during my journey. The work is an expression of how I try to understand the country. As I observed people while passing by, I tried to imagine what their lives must be like and how living in this isolated country would feel like.’
‘Propaganda persists as an essence of the country; it depicts the dream, the hope. But, on the other side remains a brute reality, often bitter and harsh.’