Stories of resilience and bravery are chronicled in Tim Franco’s new photobook on North Korean defectors

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The French-Polish photographer sheds light on the experience of 15 individuals who took a leap of faith and fled the dictatorship, in search of a better life in South Korean

It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 people have defected from North Korea since the 1950s, with some 30,000 of those settling in South Korea. Each individual has a unique tale to tell: Kim Pil-joo, for instance, escaped on his second attempt; while Ahn Myeong-Cheol made it the first time. Ahn’s father took his own life after he was overheard criticising the regime, and Ahn knew the authorities would come for him next. After jumping into the Tumen River and swimming to the Chinese border, he spent his first night of freedom hiding from guards. 

French-Polish photographer Tim Franco became interested in the lives of defectors when he moved to Seoul in 2016. In his forthcoming book Unperson – published by the Magenta Foundation and showing at FORMAT Festival – he unfolds 15 stories. “I was only 40km from North Korea and yet I knew almost nothing about it,” he says. “So I turned to the North Korean defectors living in Seoul to tell me more.”

"I crossed the river to China out of despair and starvation" Lee Ga-yeon is a North Korean defector © Tim Franco
"I escaped North Korea to be free to play any music" Kim Cheol-woong is a North Korean defector © Tim Franco.

Not wanting to reveal the locations of the defectors’ new jobs and homes for fear of North Korean spies, Franco created a neutral space within the foreign press centre of Seoul where his sitters could speak safely, and began taking pictures there. He hoped to strike a sensitive chord with his portraits, and decided to use peel-apart Polaroids, exploiting the slowness and tactility of the analogue process to accentuate the emotive stories that faces communicate. “With the Polaroids I used – Fujifilm FP-100 – you are supposed to discard the back paper,” he explains. “But by cleansing it using detergents, you are able to unearth a version of the image. So I decided to use those instead of the Polaroids themselves.” It was the perfect visual metaphor to capture the lives of his sitters in South Korea, he says – they weren’t supposed to exist there, but they reappeared, with new lives. 

The gate of Erenhot is located near the border between Mongolia & China and is a famous crossing point for North Korean defectors wanting to reach Mongolia which recognizes their status © Tim Franco.
From the series Unperson © Tim Franco.

As Franco listened, a difficult and desperate web of shared experiences emerged. “A direct crossing through the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea is close to impossible, so most escape through China first, and then embark upon dangerous trips onwards to any of the countries that will recognise their status,” he says. He knew he needed to reflect the breadth of terrain covered, and began retracing his subjects’ journeys. This took him to South Korea and China, Thailand and Mongolia, and even into North Korea, gathering images of the bridges, barbed-wire fences, roads and borders that had defined the parameters of their odysseys. The resulting landscapes punctuate the portraits in his photobook, serving as powerful reminders of the fight for freedom each collaborator has endured.

Unperson will be shown at Format21 Festival this March. Find out more here

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London