by Ana Topete
From October 15 through January 2019, Espace F Gallery in Matane is exhibiting Korean Dreams, a photographic series by Nathalie Daoust on life under the authoritarian regime in North Korea. In a country suspicious of foreign politics and secrecy, misinformation and censorship dominate. Nathalie Daoust delved in to discover what lies behind the deception and brought back an impression of what life in North Korea is really like.
Ana Topete: Tell us a little about your personal background. Where did you grow up and where have you been living since then?
Nathalie Daoust: I was born in Montreal and studied photography at Cégep du Montréal in 1997. Immediately afterward, I moved to New York to start my first photo series entitled New York Hotel Story, which involved photographing every room of an art hotel alongside the artist who decorated it. After spending two years documenting the hotel, I lived in various countries—including Japan, Brazil, Switzerland, China, and Spain—where I produced several photo projects. Since the last 14 years, I have been living in Berlin, a city that I now call home. My next project is focused the nomadic tribes of Mongolia.
AT: What led you to do a project on North Korea?
ND: I was working on a photo documentary on North Korean women living in hiding in China and working in the sex industry. I thought that it would be important for me to travel to North Korea to understand better why these women would rather live in such conditions in China than remain in their own country with their friends and family. Having experienced North Korea in the flesh, I felt compelled to create a separate series of images on the real conditions that exist inside the country in order to raise awareness around the plight that millions of people live in.
AT: Why is this theme important to you?
ND: Spreading awareness about North Korea has now become my primary concern with this exhibition. Until I went there, I didn’t understand why, after so many years of repression, the people of North Korea do not just stand up and fight for their freedom. However, after being there and doing extensive research on the country, I now understand and have great sympathy for the situation in which the people find themselves. Executions and false imprisonment are commonplace. You can spend up to ten years in prison for just wearing jeans, which are forbidden by the state. As an extra deterrent, there is also a three-generation policy. Even if you are willing to risk your life for the greater good of freeing your country, if you get caught, your children, parents and grandparents also receive the same punishment. This makes change almost impossible. Through this exhibition, I hope that people understand better what the real situation is like inside the country and the role that the repressive regime plays in maintaining the status quo.
AT: What struck you the most during your visit to North Korea?
ND: North Korea is so isolated and impenetrable that it is difficult for people inside or outside the country to gain any sense of what is really going on. The most unsettling aspect was the contrast between the fictional world that the government would like you to believe versus the conditions that the North Koreans are actually living under.
AT: What challenges did you face in taking photographs in North Korea?
ND: Foreigners are closely followed at all times and are prohibited from leaving their hotels at night. Photographs are only allowed in a small number of state-approved locations and under no circumstances may images be made of military personnel.
We were allowed to take photos in special tourist spots, but the rest of the time my camera was left hanging around my neck. I connected a cable release to the camera and then threaded the wire through the inside of my jacket arm to my hand. This allowed me to click a photo whenever I wanted without touching the camera. That is why most of the images are shot from stomach level.
AT: How did you approach this topic as a photographer?
ND: To produce the collection, I used a printing technique that mimics the way that information is lost through the myriad of layers of oppression and censorship that exists in North Korea. Starting with the original negative, I exposed photographic paper in the darkroom to create an initial image. I then removed the backing from the photographic paper and used this new “negative” to expose another sheet of paper. I repeated this process six or more times to create final images that are heavily blurred to represent North Korean society and its missing information and concealed truth. They also capture the strong sense of detachment from reality that I felt when I was there.
AT: Just one last question. In general, what do you personally take away from your projects?
ND: Since my projects take me to a wide range of locations, I discover new cultures and places that I would otherwise not travel to. Moreover, the topics that I choose often require me to access difficult or unusual places; this gives me a unique vantage point on what I see and photograph. Each project is different, but I generally develop a close relationship with the people that I photograph. I am lucky that I have remained in close contact with many of them over the years. In the case of my North Korean project, this was the first time I did not work one on one with the subjects. I was focused on discovering this isolated country by feeling it in the flesh rather than just reading about it, but, sadly, I never reached an intimate moment of spending hours with the same person and photographing them as I normally do with my past projects.