Stephan Gladieu on documenting the citizens of North Korea

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Currently on show at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Gladieu’s unique portraits – shot under rigorous constraints by North Korean officials – offer a carefully curated window into one of the world’s most secretive countries

Standing before his exhibition, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Portraits, at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles, Stephan Gladieu encapsulates the feat of practicing documentary photography in one of the world’s most secretive countries. “Without mastering the language or choosing my [own] movements,” he says, “I had to invent a framework of freedom within the constraints imposed on me.”

A photographer for 30 years, Gladieu is no stranger to immersing himself in communities far from his native France. The opacity of North Korea always needled him, and an assignment for Hyundai in South Korea only piqued his interest further. “[North Korean citizens] are completely absent from their media,” he says. “When you look at the press, there is political analysis, worry about diplomatic conflict and a nuclear arms race, but the population is nowhere… There’s no consideration of who they are.”

Gladieu attempted to coordinate an expedition to the country 15 years ago, but didn’t want to participate in an organised press trip. By chance, he met the delegate to North Korea in Paris, whose link to a senior figure in Pyongyang helped him push through an idea for a series of citizen portraits. Gladieu knew he’d be stringently chaperoned the whole time, and his series is shaped by and dependent upon these conditions.

A group of workers pose in the swimming pool of the food factory in Pyongyang's Mangyongdae district © Stephan Gladieu.
A young couple standing on Kim Il Sung Square © Stephan Gladieu.

“I had [the chaperones] on my back: ‘Have you got it? Let’s go! We have a schedule to keep,’” Gladieu recounts. “I couldn’t say: ‘I need one more.’ No way.” It was by ensuring he was “easy to control, reassuring, and transparent” that Gladieu was able to build a relative amount of trust, enabling him to return five times between 2017 and 2020, for about 15 days each time. He requested access to multiple professional sectors – surveying the saleswoman, the laborer, the civil servant – alongside anonymous citizens during their off time. Yet it is hard to say just how much of North Korea’s social fabric remained hidden from the sliver of local life he was shown. 

When it came to shooting, Gladieu would tour a predetermined area to see who was around, before executing each shot swiftly and instinctively, over the course of five minutes. By intensifying the images – using flash not only to amplify the colour palette, but to highlight figures and action in the background – he was able to exercise his own artistic vision within the restraints imposed upon him. In the foreground, his subjects positioned themselves as they wished to: he didn’t direct them or interact.

Interestingly, the constant surveillance wasn’t quite as debilitating as one might assume. In fact, it was telling. “Constraints correspond to the vision they have of themselves,” he says. “The vision they want to show of themselves.” There was no intervention on Gladieu’s final image selection, meaning that, ultimately, the series yields a double gaze: “My white Western gaze, and concurrently, their self-perception.”

Jo Hyang Mi, Jang Yun Hui, Ri Un Bok, Kim Bok Sin and Choe Hyong Ju pose in the ship restaurant uniform © Stephan Gladieu.
Dr Ri Su Rim examines Miss Yu Hyang Suk at the Zhenghsu Pyongyang textile factory © Stephan Gladieu.
Yu Gyong Il, a worker at Pyongyang wire and cable factory © Stephan Gladieu.

Chiefly, Gladieu wanted to create “an anthropological frame of reference,” akin to the “scrupulous” legacy of August Sander, who mixed documentary photography with fine art. There were also other visual touchstones, from 13th century religious paintings to communist propaganda and contemporary marketing. 

One iconographic hallmark he encountered during the trip was the omnipresence of uniform — corroborating participation in the collective, while obfuscating individual agency. This perspective is reflected just as conspicuously in North Korea’s photographic practices. “Individual portraits don’t exist,” Gladieu says. “When I looked in photographic archives, they’re rare… Except for leaders. When you’re photographed, from preschool to university, it’s in a group; then in the army, at work, at weddings.” Even during leisure time, students are still dressed in school uniform, because they don’t own alternative clothes.

The first place Gladieu was brought to on arrival in North Korea was the zoo (“Very interesting, already, as a choice!”) In his portrait of a family here, the mismatched parents emanate a cultural unintelligibility, immediately disorienting the viewer: “a man with anachronistic style and rigid posture beside a decidedly modern-looking woman, who you might cross paths with in Paris or Baltimore.” Muddling the context even further, they pose next to an affectionate pair of faux penguins. Such juxtapositions create what Gladieu calls “a secondary reading”; an outsider’s perspective that is humorous, though never intended as mocking. 

A family pose in Pyongyang Central Zoo © Stephan Gladieu.
Kim Hyang and Kim Ju Hyang pose at the Meari shooting range © Stephan Gladieu.

Elsewhere is a photograph of a man doing his grocery shopping. The hyperstylisation of the shelves is authentic, even if – as within many of Gladieu’s frames – it reads as theatrically staged. “People have said, ‘I love how you styled the décor here.’ But we are in reality! The people I photographed are where I found them: at work, in the grocery aisle,” he says. “I never moved anyone more than 50 or 60 metres.” 

Cultural confusion permeated the entire process of making the series. At a shooting range, for example, Gladieu photographed two hostesses who positioned themselves, of their own accord, in a cinematic way: back-to-back, with a North Korean gun and a semi-automatic 9mm Makarov pistol, respectively. “I said to my team they resembled Bond girls,” he recalls. “After a moment of silence, I asked why my interpreter wasn’t translating what I said, and he asked: ‘What are Bond girls?’”

“In fact,” Gladieu concludes, “every time I thought a context was going to be complicated, it wasn’t. And things I thought would be simple were hell to land. They didn’t perceive what I saw. And the inverse was true. I didn’t see what they saw.”

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Portraits is on show at Les Rencontres d’Arles until 26 September 2021

A group of children play with manual bumper cars at Mangyondae amusement park © Stephan Gladieu.
Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. Her words have been published in the International New York Times, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and others.