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Friday, April 10, 2015, 09:20

Women in uniform

By Chitralekha Basu

Watching women participate extensively in public life in North Korea was among the many pleasant surprises photographer Nick Danziger experienced during his last visit to that country. A report by Chitralekha Basu.

Women in uniform

The portrait of a dancer in military uniform shot in a car park during rehearsals ahead of May Day celebrations in Pyongyang. (Nick Danziger / NB pictures for the British Council)

Finally there is a project that seeks to humanize life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Looking at the smiling, cheerful, pensive, relaxed, gleeful, placid, matter-of-fact expressions of students, professionals, soldiers, farmers, writers, dancers, children on roller-skates and picnickers playing volleyball on the beach captured by British photojournalist and filmmaker Nick Danziger, it is easy to forget that these are in fact snapshots from a country that’s often assumed to be an unknowable entity, closed to the rest of the world. Danziger’s skilled camera work brings a fresh perspective on a culture generally seen as a socialist state offering little freedom of choice, busting a few myths about its people and society.

Danziger travelled to the DPRK in August 2013 with fellow writer Rory MacLean to work towards an exhibition and a book titled Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK, curated by Andrea Rose and sponsored by the British Council. After three weeks spent in Pyongyang, Nampo, Wonsan and Sariwon, and 7,000 frames exposed, his perception of what is known to be one of the world’s most cloistered states from which information is not allowed to travel outside had changed significantly.

“North Korean women have a more prominent role in society than you would find in many other cultures,” says Danziger, standing against the backdrop of his many images of liveried women professionals, holiday-makers and farm hands, on display at Experimental Gallery, Hong Kong Arts Centre until April 28. “They are a part and parcel of public life.”

One of the most striking among these is the image of Ri Hyang Yon, a dancer dressed in military uniform with sequined trimmings, clicked during a practice session for the Arirang Games in the car park of the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. The glow on her face, reflected from the silver foil-coated faux sword, lends a touch of surrealism, even as she looks determinedly, purposefully, at its unsheathed edge. Evidently, North Korean women do not draw back from looking the most challenging of circumstances in the eye.

Women in uniform

British photographer Nick Danziger was amazed by the warmth and cheerfulness extended to him by the people of North Korea. (Provided to China Daily)

The image is also a metaphor of North Korean society. “There is a sense of theater in North Korea. Life is largely choreographed in that place,” remarks Danziger, as he points to the photograph of the intricately-detailed daily schedule meant for university students put up in the dorm hallway. His mission, however, was to get to capture that which was “un-staged”.

It’s not the easiest of tasks walking into a space where people are “not used to seeing foreigners or cameras” and start clicking away hoping to get candid shots, but Danziger, a seasoned and extensively-travelled photographer, pulled off the feat. He had spent much of the last 25 years photographing some of the most sordid scenes from the world’s most impoverished and disadvantaged cultures — famine in Ethiopia, families living with HIV/AIDS in India. An old hand at finding his way around people, by the end of his three weeks in the DPRK Danziger had captured the interiors of a women’s-only salon, been welcomed inside a school for the hearing and speech impaired, and even more extraordinarily into a home where a middle-aged farmer supervised the studies of his young grandchildren and been offered food by women doing an outdoor barbecue.

Women in uniform

Danziger’s candid shots taken inside a women-only salon was a rare capture given North Koreans are not that used to seeing “a camera or a foreigner”. (Nick Danziger / NB pictures for the British Council)

He even managed to freeze a writer and a poet sharing a chat with a member of the cultural ministry. “Writing a novel is a collective rather than an individual effort,” reveals Danziger. “Everything is based on cementing the sustainability of what’s already in place.”

He says he hardly ever felt as safe as he did during his time spent in the DPRK. “The access was pretty extraordinary. And if I could build on the relationship we have established we might be able to do something in terms of taking the cultural exchange even further.” When the exhibition opened in London last year many visitors who had been to the DPRK felt they were “seeing something new in a country they had already visited”.

Paradoxically, this novelty is in the sameness — in underscoring the fact that North Koreans are not all that different from us. For instance the image showing a woman sowing the fields at Migok cooperative farm is just the same as anywhere else in sub-tropical Asia except for the presence of a banner in the background, carrying the slogan: “Let’s unleash the transformative phase of economic growth with the mind and spirit that has conquered the universe.”

Such aspiration is not out of place for a country that deserves to be understood by others.

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