Since the American Civil War, photography has played a central role in crafting narratives about conflicts and disasters, whether domestic or international, natural or man-made. As photographic technology has changed, so has our shrewdness in interpreting these documents, allowing for a seemingly limitless range of interactions among photographers, subjects, photographs, and viewers. To browse a stack of photo books containing images of repressively choreographed social life, famine, and war—in this instance, in North Korea, the Darfur region of western Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia, respectively—is to travel down myriad avenues of interpretation. Each book and every page requires a complicated recalibration of expectation and response.
Two recent books, Inside North Korea and Welcome to Pyongyang, offer tightly circumscribed glimpses of life inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as the nation is officially known). Both books contain introductory texts—the first by the owner of a tour-package company that specializes in travel to North Korea, the second by a University of Chicago historian—that acknowledge the limitations placed upon the photographers, an admission borne out in the images themselves. It is these texts (and the photo captions) that distinguish the books from one another. Nicholas Bonner’s introduction to Welcome is written in the voice of a man who wants to continue doing business with the regime that has allowed him to produce the book, and its captions come from North Korean tour guides. Bruce Cumings’s foreword and the anonymous captions that accompany Inside are comparatively neutral and candid.
The photographs themselves are all but interchangeable: long, symmetrical gazes down wide, nearly empty avenues; upward-sweeping views of oversize monuments; and mostly full-length formal portraits of model citizens in uniforms and traditional dress. Charlie Crane’s photographs in Welcome are more formal, reproduced at a higher quality, and feature a greater number of building interiors. The photos by Mark Edward Harris, as the broader geographic scope of his book title indicates, range across more of the country—and also benefit from views of North Korea taken from across the border with China (to the north) and South Korea (across the Korean Demilitarized Zone).
In both cases, the “inside” to which Harris’s title refers is strikingly quite literal: The photographs were taken inside North Korea, yet in almost no way do they document the interior lives of North Koreans. There is no visible rapport between the photographers and their human subjects; one must look closely in order to see around the cheerful façade—so buoyantly replicated in Welcome—erected by Kim Jong-Il’s phalanx of minders and statistics-spewing guides.
By contrast, unremitting pain characterizes the pictures in Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan, edited by Leora Kahn for the nonprofit organization Proof: Media for Social Justice. The volume presents the work of eight acclaimed photojournalists and the beseeching testimony of aid agency workers, noted writers, and a handful of celebrities; proceeds from its sales will be donated to Amnesty International and the Genocide Intervention Network. If the chilly formalism of the North Korea pictures testifies to the Dear Leader’s control over his population and his country’s visitors, the presence of so many emaciated, fly-ridden bodies mere inches from the camera lenses indicates that whatever order once held in this arid African plateau has now irredeemably collapsed. Yet the photographic depiction of even the most lawless, unprecedented situation adheres to decades-old visual convention: a regular alternation of somber black-and-white and vividly colored pictures; a preponderance of children and the elderly; stark outlines of malnourished, brittle bodies graphically contrasted with sand and dirt; and long lines of displaced people stretching into the distance.
As Susan Sontag noted in the 2002 New Yorker article that formed the basis for her book Regarding the Pain of Others, “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock.” Indeed, each photograph in this volume presents fresh indignities, whether of those suffering under Janjaweed attacks or of those whose minds have been so warped as to perpetrate this mass extinction of ethnic rebel groups. But, Sontag continued, such photographs “don’t help us much to understand.” This perhaps explains the instructional tone of the included texts—the piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof contains bullet points—which function as funnels for the outrage sure to rise in one’s chest while browsing these images. (Looking more closely, one finds small outrages about the book itself: For example, while denouncing in its pages the fact that China sells military aircraft, grenades, guns, and ammunition to those perpetrating this atrocity, the back cover notes that the volume was printed and bound in that country.) One question recurred while looking over this volume: Can photographers—perhaps in conjunction with book or editorial designers—portray a profound humanitarian crisis in such a way as to convey its specificity, and in so doing induce in viewers not passive horror but inspiration for specific action? Can such images do away with their written explication?
In Pictures Without Borders, photographer Steve Horn’s book about Bosnia, Horn unintentionally reveals one method of visual narration that makes superfluous such textual appendages: before-and-after documentation. In 1970, Horn traveled throughout what was then called Yugoslavia, documenting life in small cities and out in the countryside. The black-and-white photographs, originally undertaken as an art project, are the most formally varied and therefore the most visually engaging among all those surveyed here. Twenty-five years later, after seeing the place names of the sites he visited in news accounts of the Bosnian War, Horn decided to return to the region and reconnect, if possible, with the subjects of his earlier photographs. Needless to say—the book was published, after all—he does, and Pictures Without Borders is chock-full of Horn’s diary entries and testimonies of those he met a second time. The text is as sentimental as one would imagine, and, though one is glad for everyone involved, it detracts from the nonverbal message about the ravages of time—on a place, its buildings, and its people—that the camera delivers.