Anna Lim’s fictional disasters evoke the collective anxiety underlying everyday life in South Korea

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Enlisting volunteers to act out fictional scenarios in Seoul, Lim’s latest book comments on the media’s role in perpetuating fears of an imminent disaster

In Seoul, South Korea, photographer Anna Lim’s subjects wander the streets covered in blood, their features anguished and their clothes blackened. They strike despairing poses, some wearing high-vis jackets, others hauling the wounded to safety. Around them, bystanders walk dogs, drink coffee and chat amongst themselves. There must have been a disaster, but only some people are taking part.

This is the world Lim constructed for her project Anxiety ON / OFF. Prompted by rising tensions with the nuclear-armed North following its missile tests in 2016, Lim sought to evoke a collective unease that catastrophe was just a presidential gaffe away.

Lim holds the media partly responsible for stirring this feeling: “News reports repeatedly analysed the size of the tragedy that would happen in Seoul,” she says. “I could see two kinds of reactions from people around me. Some were driven to emergency food hoarding, while others responded with a skeptical joke about inevitable death. And the real-life anxiety caused by news footage of the world’s war, disaster and terrorism naturally became… motivation for the series.”

“I wanted to blur the boundary that modern media draws between the spectacle and the spectators with images of the suffering of others, and the real and fictional boundaries of the fear of death that they provoke.”

To bring the project to life, Lim enlisted 109 volunteers to act out a fictional scenario in downtown Seoul. The recruits were each given a different plot: lovers sharing a final goodbye, a son rescuing his mother before facing his own death, a child weeping bitterly for his dead father, and a dying photographer managing to capture the disaster.

In one scene [below], a woman sits wounded and forlorn in a public park, as others lie prone on either side. They are arranged in tableau, with shoes and plastic water bottles strewn around them. The colours are rich and dramatic, the air smokey, like a still from a disaster movie. Visible behind them is a lighting rig, a reflective panel and a fog machine. 

Like the oblivious bystanders on the street, this is all part of Lim’s careful choreography. “I wanted to blur the boundary that modern media draws between the spectacle and the spectators with images of the suffering of others, and the real and fictional boundaries of the fear of death that they provoke,” Lim says. “I think many people are lost between anxiety and insensitivity because of how the media deals with tragedy.”

Other photos were shot on a government-run emergency drill at a soon-to-be demolished apartment block in Seoul. Upturned cars, large crowds and helicopters flying overhead give the images an epic, authentic feel. It could be Gaza, Beirut, or any other real-world disaster site, if not for the fact that rescue workers carry mannequins, rather than people, from the burning rubble.

In the project’s catalogue, Lim remarks on the fact that her volunteers all bear similar facial expressions, simulating what they have seen in news coverage of real disasters. “What [the subjects] had indirectly experienced through the media was governing their actual emotions,” she says.

It is this ubiquity which lends the photographs their power. They are not just a comment on potential disaster, but on how that is transmitted in the digital age. The result is strange yet somehow familiar; distant yet unsettlingly pertinent. “Many people, including myself, are innocent consumers of images of other people’s tragedies,” she says. “We are helpless spectators.”

Anxiety ON / OFF by Anna Lim is published by Kehrer.