New Malden is a typical London suburb. It is also home to the largest population of North Korean defectors outside of the Korean peninsula. A new project by Catherine Hyland will take a look at the cultural rituals that bond the community together.
Stories for Change is an ongoing collaboration between British Journal of Photography and Panasonic LUMIX that celebrates the power of photography in driving positive change. In August 2019, three photographers will each be awarded a grant and a LUMIX S Series kit to create a new body of work around the themes Inclusion and Belonging. Below Catherine Hyland discusses what she has planned.
“The North Korean regime is something we all know about,” says Catherine Hyland. “We are completely fascinated by it, yet, when it comes to the community, there are very few people helping them.” For the last 18 months the London-based photographer has been attending K-pop competitions and church services in New Malden, spending time with North Koreans who have settled in London after fleeing their country.
“I’m trying to figure out a way to make something artistic that isn’t just exposing people who are already fragile,” says Hyland. Aware of the sensitive nature of the subject matter, and therefore the importance of forming relationships and gaining trust within the community, Hyland is yet to take a single photograph.
It is illegal for North Korean people to leave their country without the regime’s permission. To attempt to do so is extremely dangerous. “Defectors live complicated lives,” says Hyland. “People defect for political, ideological, religious and economic reasons. The brutality of the regime is impossible to imagine – starvation, propaganda and political pressure, and punishment are just some of the extreme problems they face daily.” A 2014 UN inquiry into human rights in North Korea concluded that:“The gravity, scale and nature of these [human rights] violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
The effects of living under such a regime are long-lasting. In North Korea “Everything is decided for you,” says Hyland. “Free will does not exist and, due to the extreme conditions that these people have lived under, psychological and cultural adjustment can be hard. The concept of freedom is difficult to comprehend after decades of repression.”
Hyland, however, is not looking to focus on the difficulties that the North Korean community in New Malden face. Instead, her Stories for Change project will celebrate the strength of these individuals through the rituals that shape their identity and connect them to their cultural heritage. “Rituals and gestures bond us as humans,” she says. “These small traces of our identity connect us to tradition, family and heritage. They enrich our lives and help deepen our understanding of each other.”
The project will be split into chapters, each chapter focusing upon a different ritual. “I am a great believer that it is the trivial acts that tell us the most about humanity,” says Hyland. “From my experience in the community, it is the simple things such as dance and sharing food that have established a democratic setting whereby everyone is accepted. A safe space for people to express themselves freely, no matter what their background.”
Hyland’s project is one of three new bodies of work being made as part of the first chapter of Stories for Change, an ongoing collaboration between British Journal of Photography and Panasonic LUMIX. Through the commissioning of socially important work, Stories for Change will highlight the power of photography in driving positive change. Loosely based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the first commissions in the series will explore the themes of Inclusion and Belonging.
Hyland has earned a reputation for her images of ethereal rural and urban landscapes that reveal connections between the land and its inhabitants. Themes of resolving trauma, resilience and how we overcome the past are running threads through her work. Stories for Change will be the first time that the photographer has examined food and movement rituals as a means of healing.
Ahead of the commission, Hyland reflects on the subject matter, her involvement with the North Korean community in New Malden, and her intentions for the project.
What prompted this project – why does the subject matter interest you?
I have been interested in North Korea for a long time, but I’ve spent about seven years properly researching it. Ten years ago I read a book by Barbara Dimmock called Nothing to Envy, which is about the regime in North Korea. Then, seven or eight years ago, I started going to talks by defectors from North Korea. I slowly started to meet people that way. This project has always been an idea in the back of my mind –it’s an interesting subject matter – but how do you approach something that is so volatile? About two years ago I got in contact with a charity that supports North Koreans who have come to London and they suggested I start going to K-pop competitions.
What interaction have you had with the community of defectors in New Malden?
I have been spending time with the community for the last year and a half – sitting with them, mainly in churches and at K-pop competitions, and figuring out what I can do that is useful in some way. It has very much been me attending things and then tentatively seeing who is interested in speaking to me.
I haven’t taken a single photograph yet and that is really important. There is a lot of trauma, and these people have been dislocated from their families. Journalists often jump on this subject matter, take what they need for a story and then just leave. Part of working with this community over a long period of time is to give them some encouragement. I am sure that as the project goes on there will be things that will be problematic – it is a very tight knit community and it is hard to navigate your way around – but it is about figuring out a way to make something artistic which isn’t just exposing people that are already quite fragile. Instead, I am looking to celebrate the community and their resilience.
The North Korean community in New Malden has been subject to a lot of media attention over the years but the narrative tends to be negative, focusing on the difficulties that the community faces. Why do you want your approach to be different?
I always want my work to be optimistic or leaning to that side. I often deal with subject matters that are tricky but I’m more interested in how people cope – trying to build a narrative around their lives that shows positivity, rather than just mimicking the news that constantly tells us bad things about the world. I very much believe that the more trivial acts say the most about humanity. While North Korea is a regime that we know so many negative things about, there are traditions that are beautiful within it, like the dancing.
The first chapter of the series will focus on the “ritual of performance,” particularly looking at K-pop. Why?
I find it interesting that dance has become a huge way for the Korean community to feel a part of London. At these K-pop competitions it is not just North Koreans and South Koreans, but also Londoners. In this one space, everything is neutral. These people connect through dance. By performing in front of each other they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position but they are so enthusiastic which creates a really positive space.
How will you visually approach the project?
Working with a set designer, I’ll create tableaus that are a nod to the home environment – the North Korean aesthetic is so distinct and an element of the regime that we all find interesting. The sets are mainly going to be pared back, but in other instances we will use lighting to create a more dramatic effect. The main purpose of these sets is to build a heightened reality and heighten the trivial as much as possible. The idea in doing this is so people realise how significant these acts are. When we are in a normal environment it is easy to lose sight of how brave the people who are taking part are. If you come from a regime that has suppressed you for so long, London in itself must be very scary. Doing something as expressive as K-pop is therefore incredible.
The North Korean community in New Malden also gets a lot of media attention. Big productions often turn up for a short amount of time and point lots of cameras at them. I didn’t want to do that. That is partly why I want the photographs to be staged – I want the subjects to be very aware that they are going into a studio and performing for a set reason. I wouldn’t be adding anything if I just went to the church and filmed them dancing. It would feel a bit like I was just stealing it. It is really important that they are not a spectacle and it is a collaborative piece between all of us.
Stories of Change celebrates the power of photography in driving positive change. What wider impact do you hope the series will have?
The North Korean community draws considerable attention from the press but my aim is to focus on gaining a more internal understanding of the community – looking at the less tangible elements of a re-established life so far from home. I am a great believer that it is the trivial acts that tell us the most about humanity. From my experience in the community, it is the simple things such as dance and sharing food that have established a democratic setting whereby everyone is accepted – a safe space for people to express themselves freely, no matter what their background. This is especially evident at the K-pop competitions, the children come from all walks of life, backgrounds and countries.
I hope for the project as a whole to be vibrant, hypnotic take on our current political climate – looking at identity and ideological views through rituals that could easily be dismissed but should most definitely be celebrated. I want the series to have a very practical resolve, in that it helps bring together the refugee communities that live alongside one another here in London, and also celebrates cultural heritage, while looking at the human rights element of individual stories.
I also hope it promotes acceptance, understanding and camaraderie between the resilient communities that reside in London. It’s crucial that this series is about the enjoyment of art and its deeply social dimension, a shared understanding of the way it can deepen our bonds and break down boundaries.
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