North Korea has banned the French photographer Eric Lafforgue, who in recent years had captured some of the most remarkably unfiltered images of North Korea not taken from outer space. At Business Insider, Lafforgue explains how a group of North Korean sympathizers from Spain ratted him out over a careless comment about their Kim Jong-Il t-shirts (really!), which shows you how freely some citizens of liberal societies imbibe the local quisling culture in the name of solidarity.
As with so much “engagement” with North Korea, we are left asking, “Who changed who?” Lafforgue, who refused to be changed, eventually wore out his welcome, while the obedient Associated Press remains. It doesn’t suggest that North Korea is ready to open itself to the world.
Lafforgue’s work is admired by North Korea watchers of diverse persuasions. Fortunately, he leaves an extensive body of wonderful work, which is sampled — along with Lafforgue’s commentary — at The Daily Mail and elsewhere, and at his Flickr page. In the Daily Mail, Lafforgue describes his struggles with his minders to capture just about every image shown. It’s often unclear how Lafforgue managed to get his pictures anyway, and we’re left with the impression that after he was denied permission, he still found a way.
Because Lafforgue tried so hard to reflect life in North Korea as he found it, both those who are sympathetic and those who are hostile to the regime both found degrees of validation in his imagery. From my decidedly hostile perspective, I suspect that Lafforgue’s images of high-songbun regimentation and low-songbun poverty both reflect reality — two separate and unequal realities. We are most often shown images of North Korea as a militarized and regimented society. To Lafforgue, this was a facade, a cliché to be disproven:
“I was disappointed as I think I tried to show more than just the clichés you hear about this country,” says Lafforgue of his travel ban. “I was trying to speak to people, let them talk, show they are not robots and that they have families and a lot of culture.”
“I tried to document North Korea in the same way I would any other country in the world, but for them to accept it, you really need to follow their rules and for me, some of those rules just weren’t acceptable.”
Occasionally, I’ve seen commenters attribute that cliché to hard-liners in America, although it would be more accurate to attribute it to the regime itself, with a generous assist from lazy journalists who broadcast it, often without questioning it. The reality of The Other North Korea that Lafforgue also showed us seems closer to 14th Century feudalism than 1930s Moscow or Berlin.
Breaking through that facade may be the most useful service Lafforgue did for us. He did it by breaking through North Korea’s widening class barriers, which are themselves reflected in a wide gap between standards of living in Pyongyang and everywhere else.
Lafforgue’s images from inside the invisible dome surrounding Pyongyang often have the most artistic merit, although most of those images, or the events they portray, are too staged to have much analytical value.
But it’s when Lafforgue ventured outside the dome that he did his most interesting work. I end up marveling at how much he got away with, and regretting that Pyongyang decided to close the revealing window he opened. I’ve long asked myself the same question about the extraordinary work of Kernbeisser, aka Moravius, who exceeds even Lafforgue in his ability to show North Korea’s gritty side. However they did it, Lafforgue or Kernbeisser have told us far more about North Korea than photographers who work for more established news services.