Pomp in Pyongyang Snapshots from North Korea

North Korea doesn't welcome many foreign photographers into its land, but French portrait photographer Philippe Chancel managed to get in. In his new book of photography, Chancel uses the government's ostentatious propaganda to bring out the gray desolation lurking behind it.

It isn't very often that a foreign photographer gets his hands on a work permit for isolated North Korea. But French portrait artist Philippe Chancel managed to convince Kim Jong Il's regime in Pyongyang that he was only interested in North Korea's aesthetic and not its political shortcomings. Instead of using his three visits to depict the starving population as many might be prone to do, he took a clinical look at how the state manages its image internally. With the release of "North Korea," Chancel has now published his portraits, which show everything from empty parade boulevards and plazas to the meticulously choreographed stadium ceremonies. The mass gatherings have become famous for the thousands of spectators who render mosaics of national symbols or pictures of Kim Jong Il by holding up painted placards in unison. But next to those ornaments of the masses, there is an alarming sense of desolation in the images -- even those of airports or train stations in Pyongyang.

His portrait of the capital city Pyongyang offers no evidence of individuality, nor of business or a local social life. Instead, you see a city outfitted in images glorifying the reign of Kim Il Sung -- the "Great Leader" who is designated in the country's constitution as the country's "Eternal President" despite his death in 1994 -- and his son, the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il. The propaganda requires no satire -- the leaders, with their shining white teeth and frozen smiles, look more suited for a toothpaste ad than national leadership.

At first, the father and son leaders fascinated Chancel, but later they caused him to have nightmares when North Korean bureaucrats actually took a liking to his haunting photos. Chancel says: "They have a completely different sense of reality than we do."


"North Korea." Photography by Philippe Chancel. 208 pages, Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf Verlag, €45.

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