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North Korea / Peter Hove Olesen

March 2016

© Peter Hove Olesen

Exhibit opening, screening, & talk
Tuesday Feb 23, 2016, 7:30 PM
Moderated by Myles Little, curator and senior photo editor at TIME 


Working for eight days in Pyongyang in 2013, photographer Peter Hove Olesen fulfilled a personal dream and went to North Korea with a Danish theater troupe on a cultural exchange program. He was surveilled at all times, forbidden access to locals, and told where to eat, sleep, and walk. One’s first impression of his images is that they document the banality of total control: it just doesn't seem so bad in the DPRK.


But then you consider defectors' accounts about real life in the DPRK: the famine of the 90s and continuing food shortages today; the cult of personality about the Dear Leaders, which combines patriarchal and  supernatural powers with overtones of Stalin, Jesus, and Santa Claus; every night the blackout of electricity; the indoctrination about the evils of the outside world and the block on freely sought information. Added to this list is the caste system, the labor camps, the colossal militarization of society, and the intrusion of the state into the deepest reaches of private lives.


In this dark light, Peter’s photos re-form as stagecraft with deranged directors, and actors cast to play the same roles in the same script. With little regard to individual ability or desire, ordinary North Koreans have had to learn to live under an incredibly complicated set of harebrained, crushing precepts. They have had to learn to appreciate the dark, trust no one, doctor themselves, and somehow form families, laugh, and enjoy propaganda movies. Peter’s pictures are metaphors for what underpins their lives: paranoia, repression, repetition, and obedience to show. Yet, as frozen in place as this society appears, it’s susceptible to collapse in a flash.  


~ Anna Van Lenten

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