Not very much is known about life in North Korea. As a nation whose government exerts strict control over its people and global image, accessing the country has proven to be difficult. Art photographer Nathalie Daoust is one of the very few from the Western world who has actually been there. It started out with Nathalie wanting to photograph North Koreans that had fled to China, but she ended up becoming just as fascinated with the country itself. To be able to take pictures in secret after gaining visiting rights, she had to trigger her camera using a cable going through the arm of her jacket.
A general theme for all of Nathalie’s work is escapism. For example with her Tokyo Hotel Story project, she spent several months living in the Alpha In, one of Japan’s biggest S&M “love hotels.” There, she photographed nearly 40 women in their private rooms, surrounded by their specialist equipment and dressed in the regalia that defines their trade. As Nathalie explains people go there to escape reality and the women working there get payed to help them do this. What fascinated her about North Korea is how the people are so obscured from reality due to propaganda both in favour of their figure heads and against the outside world. Therefore there is a kind of mass escapisim the population is forced to undergo in order to evade any bleak realities about the conditions they live in. According the Nathalie, there is nowhere else in the world like it.
Only 2000 Western tourists get to visit North Korea each year. How did you get into North Korea for your ”Korean Dreams” series?
Nathalie Daoust: I don’t know how it is there now, but when I was there you could only enter through China. I had contacted one of the companies that you can go with almost a year prior to when I actually went there. When you apply to go to North Korea they google your name, combined with ‘North Korea’. So they got back to me and said that because there was too much information online related to me and North Korea, they wouldn’t let me come with them. I don’t know if all companies do this or they actually don’t care, but I ended up spending almost 6 months on getting the online information removed. Once everything was offline, it was really easy to go.
How did you get the idea to do it?
Nathalie Daoust: My projects focus on escapism. For example with the Tokyo Hotel project, people go there to escape reality and the women working there get payed to help them do this. I also did a project called Mao Zedong – It’s about a poor man who dresses up as him and walks the streets believing and acting as Mao Zedong. This is an example of mental escapism through a changing of character. What fascinates me about North Korea is the escapism forced upon all its people. There is nowhere else in the world where an escape from the reality is so inflicted upon a whole population. People believe things that are not true that the system tells them, and a whole population lives in a fantasy world that doesn’t really exist. So I was curious about this forced escapism.
I’ve read that the only way you can visit North Korea is on these guided tours where you only see a fake city built like a movie set for foreign visitors, and that you are not allowed to leave the guarded hotel on your own. Was it like that for you too? Did you sneak out?
Nathalie Daoust: I escaped the tour once. It wasn’t even purposely and I got into a lot of trouble. The people who supervise you also get into a lot of trouble if that happens so they are very watchful. At nighttime we were allowed to go down and have drinks in the hotel with the other foreigners there. One night I just wanted to have a cigarette outside but right away there were two security guards so I couldn’t really go out to adventure. I had some tricks like pretending that I had to go to the toilet in places where I knew they would have to bring me to a public space in order to do so, and they would bring me somewhere I wasn’t actually supposed to go.
Reading about North Korea I feel that it can be hard to grasp that a society like this actually exists. Did you have the same feeling and did it change when you saw it in real life?
Nathalie Daoust: I had read a lot about North Korea before going there – done a lot of research, watched documentaries, etc. I have to admit that being there was even worse than I expected. Not in the sense of poverty, I didn’t get to see any concentration camps or anything like that, but I was surprised at how nobody has information about anything. They know what they are being told, and what they are allowed to tell, but they didn’t even know who Kim Jong-Un’s mother was. I could find more information online than what they could actually tell me. They are not even allowed to travel from one city to the next without a permit, so information is very kept.
People visiting NK have said that the guides were lying about everything. For example that the reason that the population can’t access the internet is that the government doesn’t want people to have a negative view on the Western world because there are so many horrible things online about the Western world…
Nathalie Daoust: Yes, they will tell you these ridiculous stories. We also went to a hospital where they wanted to convince us that this was the best hospital with the greatest technology ever. They brought us to a room and said that a woman had given birth there just yesterday, and then we see that the woman is holding like a 6-month-old baby. They also claimed that North Korea is such a strong country that there is not a single handicapped person born because they have only good genes. Everything they were telling us was so surreal. I tried to debate a few times, but then they started to act suspicious and I gave up on it.
Did you have an idea about what you wanted to photograph and portray before you went there?
Nathalie Daoust: My initial project was to photograph North Koreans that escaped to China. Many women end up in prostitution. If they get caught, they get deported automatically because the Chinese are not really on their side, so they are pretty much sent to a death sentence. If ever they become pregnant with a Chinese child, from what I have read, a lot of these babies also end up being killed or put somewhere else because they are considered impure. So people are escaping only to be entrapped in an even darker place. I have met a lot of these women, but I ended up doing so much research on North Korea that I became as fascinated with the place itself as the people escaping it… I mean I still want to do the other project with the women in China, but that will take a lot of time because it is so complicated. The project would be very dangerous for these women and I don’t want to harm anyone. The women I met were all willing to do it, but I decided to back down on this project. I have to find a way of not making their face visible. I don’t want people to get killed beacuse of my art.
Did you have to hide your camera and did you get in trouble for photographing?
Nathalie Daoust: As a tourist, you are allowed to have a camera and take photos of exactly what they tell you to take photos of and also the way they want you to take photos of things. For example if there is a photo or statue of Kim Jong-Il, you have to have a full picture of it. If you cut the feet or anything, it’s very disrespectful and they delete the photo. They check your camera to see if you have taken the photo properly. I shot with analog film so there was no risk for them to check my camera. For them, analog was also an old way of taking photos so they didn’t think that I could possibly be a professional. As a tourist, I was allowed to have my camera on my chest all the time, so I had a cable going through the arm of my jacket, that could trigger the camera so I was able to take photos even if it wasn’t allowed. That’s why many of the photos are taken from stomach height.
How and why did you decide on olden and dreamlike aesthetics for the images?
Nathalie Daoust: I used this peeling technique in the darkroom. I cut out the negatives of the contact sheets, peeled it, reprinted and rebuilt it again and again. It goes a little bit with the idea that you have to go through many layers before you actually get to the realities of North Korea. I decided to use that technique after experiencing how crazy it is in North Korea. Usually I try to go with the feeling that I have while taking the photos when I develop and manipulate them in the darkroom. I felt like I was missing the truth of reality and a lot of information when taking the photos; Loss of information, real/unreal, between dream and fiction, sharp and unsharp.
You told me that you might go there again… for what reason is that?
Nathalie Daoust: I loved it and I want to see it again while I still can. It is something that you will never see again. I don’t want to go to take photos but I just want to see the parts I haven’t seen yet.
Do you have a political reason or motif with going there and taking photographs?
Nathalie Daoust: Of course, I wanted to bring change because I don’t think that anybody should live this way. I also wanted to share the information on North Korea so that people could understand and help from the outside. Some changes need to be done.
What kind of experiences are you looking for when doing projects?
Nathalie Daoust: I would love to have the experience of going into a really rough prison, for example in South America for a month to see how people live and do in there. It’s a social thing you would never get to see unless you’d be arrested and put into prison. Same with the Love Hotel in Tokyo. Unless you are into S&M, you will never get to access and understand this world. You just have a vision of both things based on what have been told in TV but it isn’t necessarily the reality. I discovered this with both Tokyo and North Korea.
Interview by Iren Asandi & Carl-Emil Storm Gabrielsen.
This article first appeared in Dry Magazine V – The Inequality Issue. List of stockists here.