Interview by Svetlana Bahchevanova
Fabian Muir is an award-winning Australian photographer. The principal motivation behind his projects and practice is a focus on humanist issues combined with strong visual storytelling.
His images have been featured in major solo and group exhibitions and festivals around the world. He has been honoured as finalist in the 2017 FotoEvidence Book Award for Searching for North Korea and the 2017 ZEISS Photography Award for Shades of Leisure in North Korea in association with the World Photography Organisation. He received an inaugural Magnum Photography Award for a documentary series for Intimate Perspectives on North Korea and was a finalist in the 2016 Miami Street Photography Festival. His short film Holiday in Abkhazia won the award for best screenplay at the Strasbourg International Film Festival in 2009. With a soft spot for cricket, he also contributes features and photographs to ESPNcricinfo.com and has written for Wisden.
He is represented by Michael Reid in Sydney and Berlin.
How did you become a documentarian? How has your education in writing and law contributed to your photography work?
I’m self-taught as a photographer and the writing came first. I’ve spent enormous amounts of time surveying the countries and breakaway territories of the former Soviet Union — an immense and never-ending project. The first years spent on this involved writing essays Kapuściński-style with a view to ultimately synthesizing them into a book. Photography had been a passion all my life but with no firm background, it was only when people started requesting images to go with the pieces and they were well received that it seemed I had some ability as a photographer. I then started doing both since the two media complement each other well. Later my mother sadly died much before her time, which was a profound experience as an only child and knocked the wind out of the writing. I wrote her obituary and then, in effect, put the pen down. However, this inexplicably energized the image-making and photography has dominated ever since.
Documentary work was a preordained path because the writing and associated practical experiences in testing locations had already laid the groundwork. I relish it because the interactions, challenges and experiences from this kind of work teach one so much, especially about oneself. I do believe in potential crossovers between documentary and art, so it’s a creative outlet as well. Finally there’s that driving hope that you’re engaged in a worthwhile pursuit that can at least bring awareness or even contribute in some small way to constructive change.
Writing taught me to cut ruthlessly and to understand an editor’s decision to cut even more. It also first taught me to engage as deeply as possible with people, since detached observation often isn’t enough. The same often applies to photography. An understanding of the craft of writing — which means an education in literature and theatre as well — also adds a useful dimension when thinking about a narrative structure for images. It made me aware of the importance of building moods, rhythm, changes of pace and dividing pieces into ‘acts’. I spend a lot of time agonizing over sequencing of images as a result.
The law has been very useful as well. You learn to be objective, to delve deeper, to listen and to appreciate that situations are rarely black and white. When it works properly, the law is about fact-finding and trying to establish an empirical truth (which may not even exist, but serves as a useful goal). This involves being willing to hear all sides, while peeling back layers to reveal complexities that aren’t immediately apparent but do need to be considered, in order to reach an informed conclusion.
What brought you to North Korea?
The initial interest was sparked by the work in the former Soviet Union, which I never saw ‘in action’. While the Soviet and North Korean systems are different, they are sufficiently similar to make North Korea the last country where one can experience something comparable still in operation, right through to the prevailing aesthetic. (North Korea has borrowed even more from Maoist China, but contemporary China has morphed into a hybrid unique unto itself and is a country I’ve yet to tackle.) This started me reading and watching everything I could find about the DPRK, which drew me ever deeper into the subject.
Did you go as a journalist?
No. Journalists attract suspicion in North Korea because there is a perception that they are generally bent on a negative portrayal. I would have had far less access and less genuine experiences via that route. Also, I feel that a documentarian and journalist are not the same thing, so in that sense I don’t go anywhere as journalist. All I know for certain is that people had certainly checked my profile on the internet before granting the first visa and it evidently didn’t raise any red flags.
You went five times over a period of two years. What brought you back again and again?
It was the discovery of unexpected storylines during my first visit and the fact I could shoot more freely than expected that made me sense that there was scope for a major project, but it was clear that to do it properly a single visit could never be enough. With a country like North Korea, repeat visits were also necessary to keep testing my thoughts and impressions — think of it as a verification process.
Also, it’s not permitted to stay there for months on end, so you have to divide it into blocks if you want to study as much of the country as possible. I converted this into an opportunity to visit in all seasons — if you see North Korea only in winter, when power outages are common and heating is scarce, this will indelibly shape your impression and your images will tend to be bleak. If you see it only in summer, when people play sport or sit around fishing and drinking beer, you might deliver an oddly joyous body of work. Since the ‘reality’ is a synthesis of all of these sides and much more, you need to maximize your experience to gain a reasonably balanced perspective.
People pass before a mural of the leaders standing upon the North Korean 'sacred mountain' of Mount Paektu. The focus of the project was always about how North Koreans act and interact in this absolutely unique environment.
Traveling inside North Korea is heavily controlled. How did you manage to get outside of the well-known clichés often used to depict the country to outsiders?
I was conscious of trying to visit locations and settings that were relatively unknown and might reveal something newer, so I did a great deal of research to plot these out. I was especially interested in places away from Pyongyang, since the majority of reportages entitled ‘North Korea’ consist entirely of the capital. Yet, Pyongyang is a separate entity from the rest of the country. I often use the example of doing a series on New York and calling it ‘America’.
After working out what you would like to see, you ask whether it will be possible. Even when you think everything is settled, you do have to be adaptable there since things can be fluid. Sometimes you end up in places you never expected. Sometimes visits still get cancelled despite having been approved. There’s a rural steel mill I tried to visit on three occasions and it fell through at the last minute each time. However, overall I was satisfied with how many things did work out as I hoped.
Getting past the clichés also comes down to a personal decision in terms of where you turn your lens, how you see things and especially what you’re trying to document. I was always trying to observe how people operate and interact within this unique environment or sometimes in relation to a foreigner, so I was largely focused on images that were perhaps less obvious but contributed to this theme.
Many observers, especially first time visitors to Pyongyang, become mesmerized by monuments and other clichés. Those tropes are striking, familiar and provide the fleeting satisfaction of visual fast food. But that’s the problem with the ‘classic’ North Korea images we see: no matter how spectacular they are, something similar has been shown a thousand times before and they don’t develop the narrative. The clichés are part of North Korea’s fabric. I photographed them too but they’re apt to distract from more elusive, deeper parts of the story, which is what I was trying to find. Hence ‘Searching for North Korea.’
Students participate in a mass dance on Kim Il-sung square, Pyongyang. While the clichės do form part of the fabric of North Korean society, there is a sense of having seen such images before and they ultimately do little to develop the narrative on the country.
What was your daily routine during your travels?
Days are extremely busy and varied, so it’s difficult to describe a standard routine beyond rising very early, meeting the guides and heading out to see things, be it in an urban, coastal or rural environment. On intercity travel days, many hours might be spent driving but this is also interesting, since you get an unfiltered view of rural life and smaller townships. By the time you’ve had dinner and some kind of evening activity — typically a performance, bar or amusement park — it’s rare to be back in your room before 11pm.
Where you followed by government agents?
Yes, this is mandatory. You’ll always have two guides (one female, one male) plus a driver. When you’re not used to it, it’s rather intense. The guides have studied languages and are trained for the job. They work for state companies specializing in taking foreign visitors around. Quite a few of them have been abroad or done stints in China and they can be quite worldly. They are also tasked with monitoring/controlling your movements, which is why they are often referred to as minders.
Did their presence influence what you saw and what you photographed? Did anybody exercise censorship over your work?
Their presence certainly affects what you see, principally due to the constraints on your movements. This is a significant type of censorship in itself. There can be moments of spontaneity, but if you say, ‘Can we stop in this village, it looks interesting’ you should be ready for them to refuse.
Since you surrender so much control, you need to learn how to work within this set-up. The key is to recognize that the guides didn’t create these rules and are doing a job, which then opens the path to having a constructive relationship with them. If you get along, it will work in your favor since they will be patient with you and can facilitate a great deal. If you don’t, they can rush you or shut everything down. Since their mentality and sensibilities are very different from ours, it’s only with time that you develop a sense of when to push, take your own initiative or pull back. I largely had good experiences and was sometimes quite sorry to say goodbye — who knows if they felt the same way? On a micro level, it’s perhaps a lesson that engagement can bring you further than confrontation.
In terms of direct censorship, they never tried to direct me to take certain photos nor did they prevent me from approaching people. The only time I recall really being stopped from shooting was a picture of a toy store, which seemed so harmless that it’s possible it was just to make me aware that they could intervene if they wanted. (I was able to take the photo on a subsequent visit with different guides.) I’ve exited North Korea through three different border points by train, air and foot, and no one checked my photos (in reverse, sometimes they’ll look at what you’re bringing in). That doesn’t mean I didn’t back up my pictures in case, but it always proved unnecessary. I’ve read that David Guttenfelder — who has been to North Korea 40 times — has had the same experience, so I’m skeptical when I see stories of people ‘smuggling’ images out.
A farm worker hopes for rain during a protracted dry period in rural North Korea in 2015. With 22% agricultural land, drought and floods bite hard in North Korea, none of which is helped by ageing technology and a lack of motorised transport in such areas.
What is considered ‘illegal’ to photograph in North Korea? What were you not able to photograph?
The rules are quite simple — no military (with some exceptions), no construction workers (who are often soldiers) and no cropping of representations of the leaders. There are also some buildings where you can’t photograph the interiors such as certain museums. In the far north of the country you can’t take photos out of the vehicle, which might partly be because of the Tumen River and porous border to China.
North Korea is one of the five remaining communist countries and completely isolated from the rest of the world. How are the lives of North Koreans different from ours?
That’s a complex question — on a practical and even spiritual level their lives are completely different. The totalitarian system and devotion to a state that permeates all aspects of society, the lack of outside information with the resultant cultural isolation and naivité, the religious veneration of the leaders (which is the simplest way to try to understand it), the state ‘Juche’ philosophy of self-reliance, the restrictions on private enterprise (easing slightly now) and lack of consumerism, the internal travel restrictions, the class structure, the ‘military first’ policy and concomitant fear of an attack by the US, the backdrops of a retro aesthetic coupled with at times incredibly futuristic architecture, the overall lack of choice or variety (even music is state-sanctioned, meaning you hear variations on the same somewhat eccentric play list in all public spaces), the reliance on the state for everything from food to housing, the effects of sanctions and power shortages (more noticeable outside Pyongyang), the ongoing need for international aid, the sometimes harsh rural conditions and absence of motorized transport in the countryside — all of these things and more create a sense of a people living within an absolutely unique framework, far removed from our own time and space. This feeling is magnified by the fact that technology often seems to be cutting edge or 1960s, with little in-between.
Yet inside this they are also commuting to nine-to-five jobs and having drinks after work. So on a human level your ordinary North Korean is not noticeably different from elsewhere, with a love of family, simple pleasures, sport and cigarettes. Girls flirt. There’s a generosity, warmth and sense of humor you don’t expect — people might offer you food or drink in a park and even soldiers are up for a laugh when they let the mask fall. (I’ve read numerous times that there are laws restricting interactions with foreigners, but if these laws exist, they don’t seem to be taken very seriously, or at least not now.) Children are curious and playful throughout the country. There appears to be a strong sense of community. For me these fundamental, common values were as important and illuminating as the other dimensions since they show that ordinary people remain human and resilient no matter what the system, or perhaps even in response to it.
Children line up in an orphanage in Nampo on North Korea's west coast. In this respect, some orphans might also be temporary residents whose parents have been assigned elsewhere for a period of time. This is another example of an image that elicits a chuckle at first, but reveals a range of possible layers when considered more deeply.
In another interview you said: “It’s far too simplistic to throw the entire people in with the politics.” Did you meet people who did not care about the politics of their country or people expressing discontent of the politics of North Korea?
No one openly questioned the politics, although in fairness it would not be in their interests to do so, especially not for guides, when they don’t know what I might do with that information. But you do search for extra levels of meaning in the questions people ask you and perhaps something can be read into their often great curiosity. I’d simply say I don’t for a moment think they are incapable of independent thought. The closest experience I had to hearing real doubt was at a large public event where I was alone and slipped into conversation with someone, who eventually asked, ‘Are the US Imperialists really imperialists?’ This was incredible since it goes to a cornerstone of North Korean policy.
Returning to the first part of the question, during the project I often used Thomas Hoepker in the GDR or Cartier-Bresson’s survey of the USSR as reference points. They were working in environments suffused by state and politics, but were also able to calmly observe humanist, ironic and even humorous aspects that transcended this. So I’m really borrowing from their spirit when I say it’s a shallow analysis if all one’s photos of North Koreans have to depend on overt political references to have meaning, and that there are people there who, as Sufis say, are in the world but not of it.
In the event of a military conflict, would you return to North Korea to document it?
I’m not a war photographer and I wouldn’t ever want to document large-scale, government-backed killing. But I would certainly return to document the rebuilding and realignment of the Korean peninsula, also in relation to China. The same applies if there were a peaceful reunification, which North Koreans constantly tell you they want, without explaining how this might actually look. While the Korean dynamics are different, we’ve seen with the GDR/West Germany that it’s possible for things to move unexpectedly and quickly — and peacefully.
Your work from North Korea has a very subtle humor that in some pictures unfolds more layers than our eyes see. What is your message?
This is well-observed and exactly right. I grew up in a family that worked in theatre, so there was often a sense of Ionesco sitting under the home dinner table. Thanks to this I’m drawn towards the absurd, coupled with the belief that a deeper meaning lies behind it.
As you say, the images that seem simple and humorous lead to more complex questions. The photo of the fan cover, for example, can be taken on face value as an observation on North Korean kitsch. But at the same time viewers might ask whether this kind of adornment is really typical of a North Korean home, or whether it instead shows how North Koreans would like to present a home to a foreigner — or both. All of these options and their answers raise interesting possibilities.
The playground in Chongjin is another example. It’s a simple picture, but the first response is one of sheer amazement. Then one begins to think about institutional militarization of a small child’s worldview in the DPRK and the underlying reasons for this, while also suggesting broader questions about why toy guns and tanks are given to four-year-olds in any society.
The image of orphans in Nampo also seems to make people chuckle at first, before opening itself to a range of interpretations in terms of the past and the present, while the highly structured composition can be taken as a reflection of North Korean life and strictures and the infants’ possible future.
That said, I don’t wish to instruct viewers in how they should read the images. Ultimately the message is that North Korea is an immensely complex country with multiple interweaving narratives over and above what people already know, especially on the human level. My intention is to transmit this visually and for this reason I would indeed encourage people to take time to look beneath the surface of these images and consider the possible subtexts. I’m not sure whether I managed to discover new answers about North Korea, but I do believe I found some new questions.