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Setting the Stage in Pyongyang, North Korea

Yanggakdo Hotel, from Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea, Part 2 © Eddo Hartmann

“They’re putting their children through school, falling in love and getting married, which we don’t really think about. It’s a society where people live. In different circumstances – but they are living,” says Eddo Hartmann of North Korea, as an exhibition of his work there goes on show at Huis Marseille

Documentary images of North Korea have trickled steadily into the media landscape since the late 1990s. Since those granted access to the region are afforded little freedom to be creative, their main depictions are usually of totalitarian dictatorship, state-sanctioned ideologies, normalised militarism, and colossal architecture, all of which have become over-familiar in images of the country.

This documentary déjà vu is what prompted Eddo Hartmann to pursue a multimedia project about North Korea, to act as a record for what many of us cannot see. The photographer visited Pyongyang, the country’s capital, four times between 2014 and 2017, creating thousands of large and medium format digital images of the city’s architecture and citizens.

“I kept seeing images in this World Press Photo kind of style,” he explains. “I knew that if I were to go there, it would not be the way that I would take pictures, because it wouldn’t be interesting.”

Hartmann was granted his first visa to enter Pyongyang in April 2014, and set off determined to make photographs characterised by his own artistic stylings. He was permitted to enter the country by stating he was interested in the city’s buildings, and was shown a number of impressive structures, always accompanied by two guides who scrutinised each digital image he made to ensure they were permissible.

“It was like being in Eastern Europe in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War,” he recalls. “It was a copy of that moment in time, like I was travelling back through history.”

He became aware that the themes he wanted to flesh out would take more time under these strict limitations. “When I returned home after 10 days, I realised it couldn’t be a short project. If I wanted to create interesting work, I needed to go back.”

Three Revolutions Exhibition, from Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea, Part 2 © Eddo Hartmann

Hartmann’s visits to Pyongyang have resulted in images, videos and a book under the overarching title Setting the Stage. As a follow-up to a showcase of images at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille in 2015, a new exhibition incorporating the latest work will be on show at the gallery from 09 December to 04 March. The new exhibition, titled Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea, Part 2, will highlight Hartmann’s intentional departure from traditional reportage, meant to humanise the subjects who are often lost in shots of groups and collective masses.

“I try to convey this sense of being there alone, rather than with a group of people. It’s easier to connect with an image when there’s only one person there instead of a group,” he says. “It’s not like a portrait, where you get really close. It’s more like stepping back and seeing how and where this person can walk in and out of the frame.”

This second instalment also incorporates a number of video projects, including a virtual reality experience of Pyongyang’s squares and subway, which Hartmann filmed with a 360° camera. The VR experience is meant to further humanise the photographer’s subjects by immersing viewers into moments revealing the North Korean’s daily routines. Participants will be able to look around from a central vantage point as though they are standing in the capital.

In addition to the VR component, Hartmann has created a video project about the eerie song that crackles to life from the capital’s loudspeakers at midnight each day. Erected throughout the city, the speakers play a shortened synth version of a song from the state-sanctioned revolutionary opera, A True Daughter of the Party. The photographer has titled this film Where Are You, Dear General?

Party Foundation Monument, from Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea, Part 2 © Eddo Hartmann

By incorporating these additional multi-sensory experiences into the project, Hartmann further shifts us away from the journalistic imagery that fails to present a rounded story of the seemingly impenetrable capital. Considering the current political climate, Hartmann’s project is necessary to help us connect with North Korea’s 25 million citizens, who exist as individuals despite our distant and abstract access to them.

“They’re putting their children through school, falling in love and getting married, which we don’t really think about,” Hartmann reflects. “It’s a society where people live. In different circumstances – but they are living.”

Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea, Part 2, is on show at Huis Marseille from 09 December-04 March 2018. https://www.huismarseille.nl/en/ eddohartmann.nl This article originally appeared in the December issue of BJP, which is available via https://www.thebjpshop.com/