One does not have to be an expert in international politics to know the situation of North Korea, a country almost unknown to all of us, almost invisible we could say.
It all began back in 1945 when Kim Il-sung imposed himself as the main leader of the country after leading the armies against Japan in the communist resistance.
Since that moment exactly 75 years have passed but the Kim dynasty still continues to dictate the law in the country, a dictatorship that lays its foundations on the cult of personality started by the grandfather of the current Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
To this day, North Korea remains one of the darkest countries in the world. In a context of permanent political, diplomatic and military crisis, the dynastic and dictatorial regime has chosen a propaganda that “invisibilizes” its people.
Entering the country is certainly not a walk in the park, you do not need a normal passport and there are many nations that advise their citizens not to visit Korea.
And if entering is very difficult because you have to obtain special visas, imagine leaving the country, a possibility that is not even contemplated in the regime except in very rare cases. Many North Koreans every year try to escape by exploiting the demilitarized borders with China, but the task is more than difficult.
There is who, however, has managed to enter with a special visa, revealing from the beginning his intentions,(fundamental condition to avoid big problems), we speak of the French photographer Stephan Gladieu.
Between 2016 and 2020 he made three trips to photograph the North Korean people. His intentions were different from usual, we all know the dynasty and history but we really know little about the 25 million people living in the regime.
“North Korea has always been an enigma for me. After half a century of existence, it is one of the most hated countries in the world and also one of the most misunderstood. I want to understand the identity of this people and its relation to the tragic destiny of the motherland. I want to capture the out of scope of propaganda.
A challenge in North Korea where the individual portrait does not exist. Iconography is the exclusive weapon of propaganda, which is expressed mainly through painted or ceramic frescoes representing the regime’s iconic figures. In the interiors, it is obligatory to display exclusively the portrait of the regime’s founder, Kim Il Sung, alongside that of his son Kim Jong Il. No family photos, no personal portraits, no room for individuality. It does not exist. The individual does not exist, there is no reality in a society where everything is plural, collective, communitarian.“
In late 2020 he published all the photos taken during his stays in his book “Corée du Nord”, on sale here.
Although clearly the photos do not reflect reality Stephan Gladieu through his lens has tried to immortalize ordinary citizens, making invisible for once their Leader.
Constantly surveilled, accompanied step by step during his immersions in North Korea, Stephan Gladieu invents a space of freedom within the framework imposed on him by the regime.
By choosing the full-length portrait that invites frontal pose and direct gaze, the photographer has familiarized himself with the codes of the propaganda image, making his approach, if not familiar, at least understandable to North Koreans.
A work so far unique in its kind, that while not showing all sides of the country makes us discover something more about its inhabitants. Below you will find some of Stephan Gladieu’s shots.