The Hong Kong-based artist Ted Lau took his first trip to Pyongyang and the surrounding countryside in 2019, having grown up with regular headlines about the country’s missile tests, and keen to explore the less reported side of life in North Korea.
His Work Will Set You Free series of images captures the strangely retro-futuristic architecture of the capital, which is peppered with portraits of former leaders Kim II-sung and Kim Jong-il. Lau also visited one of the city’s two amusement parks – which offered a rare opportunity for overseas visitors to mingle with North Koreans – as well as photographing young students in art class.
In addition to exploring Pyongyang, Lau documented North Korea’s Mass Games – an annual synchronised performance featuring tens of thousands of participants, many of whom are children. A 2013 BBC report claimed that girls aged between 11 and 13 spent hours each day preparing for the event, often training outside in freezing temperatures. Lau’s images capture the precision of the performance, including the moment when students create a giant picture by holding up the pages of a connected book.
His images are undeniably fascinating, but it’s a fascination tinged with discomfort. North Korea is well known for its restrictive approach to tourists, who must stay within designated areas and be accompanied by tour guides. Lau was similarly accompanied by ‘minders’ who dictated what he was allowed to photograph.
In the introduction to the book he writes that his wish is “for you to see what the lives of the North Korean people are like”, but there’s a sense that his images are as carefully controlled as the tourists. In the foreword, Yu-Ting Cheng – an artist who accompanied Lau on the trip – remembers how a guide asked the photographer to delete an image of a man riding a bike loaded with sacks of crops, because he wasn’t in his best outfit and would present a ‘bad image’ of the country.
Despite all this, Lau’s book is intriguing, and some of the underlying sense of propaganda is relieved by texts penned by Bombay-based writer and educator Zahra Amiruddin. These presumably haven’t been subject to the control of North Korean minders, and as a result provide some clear-sighted historic and political context to Lau’s arguably more idealised images.
Work Will Set You Free is published by Daylight, priced $45; daylightbooks.org