In 2012, Canadian photographer Nathalie Daoust snuck into North Korea using a false passport. Armed with a camera, hung at waist level and triggered by a hidden shutter release cable, she defied the totalitarian nation’s ban on photography outside of approved sites, capturing images of daily life and some of its people.
Returning to her darkroom, Daoust manipulated those images, making them fuzzy, indistinct, distant and haunting -- to reflect the feeling she had while in the isolated country.
"In North Korea, it really felt like everyone I met was beyond reach,” Daoust told the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. “I never felt that I was able to form a clear picture of North Korea, and most of the information that I was told was obscured and lost at every turn. That's why I developed a technique in the darkroom to instill the images with this same feeling."
In 2016, Daoust combined those images -- and some enlightening explanatory text -- into “Korean Dreams,” an international touring exhibition that is only now making its U.S. debut, with exhibitions in St. Cloud and, through February, at Kiechel Fine Art.
The most striking of the photos on view at Kiechel is tiled “Photography,” capturing a military officer seemingly staring directly into the camera while his comrades march in front and behind him. A stunning visualization of military oppression, “Photography” is chilling in another fashion -- taking pictures of military personnel in North Korea is punishable by death.
Pictures like “Prison/Concentration Camp” combine the image of an officer confronting a pedestrian on the street with a caption that details the country’s incarceration system that now holds more than 200,000 people, while “Bicycle,” which shows a man pushing a bike loaded with lumber, explains that since the 1990s, women have been prohibited from riding bikes.
There are images of subways and train cars, squares and authorized gathering places -- and women in dresses in an organized, obviously officially sanctioned dance. But there are no images inside homes or portraits of ordinary people -- save for a picture of a school girl in her uniform. But she stares expressionlessly forward, a distant, anonymous figure.
The images and accompanying labels (yes, a rare event in which I’m praising explanatory text at an art show) combine to tell a harrowing story of a piece of North Korea that few from outstide the country and almost no Americans have seen.
Because they’re made for multiple exhibitions and constant moving from venue to venue, the photographs are rather cheaply printed and framed with no glass. That’s understandable. But the show would have packed even more of a punch had the printing been done on, say, aluminum or more expensively printed and framed.
That said, “Korean Dreams” is well worth a look, providing an artistic view of North Korea along with the cold hard facts of the harsh life there.