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Book of the Week: Selected by Owen Kobasz

Book Of The Week Red Ink Photographs by Max Pinckers Reviewed by Owen Kobasz Red Ink was commissioned by The New Yorker for the article “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea” by Evan Osnos, in the September 18, 2017 issue and supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Red Ink. By Max Pinckers.
Red Ink 
Photographs by Max Pinckers

Max Pinckers, Brussels, Belgium, 2018.
180 pp., color illustrations, 6x7¾".

In 2017, Max Pinckers was commissioned, by The New Yorker, to photograph Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city. His photographs were to be used in the article “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea,” written by Evan Osnos. Pinckers’ self-published title, Red Ink, now re-contextualizes them in the form of a photobook. Two texts are included, one by Osnos, and another by Slavoj Žižek.

In Evan Osnos’ short essay, “Pyongyang’s Anaconda in the Chandelier,” he describes the actual experience of traveling to North Korea: The anticipation (July 2017 was an especially tense time), the Chinese security who confiscated Max Pinckers’ main flash (forcing him to use a number of small flashes taped together for the same effect), the North Korean security who were suspicious of Osnos’ books, and then, the drama of living, breathing, and trying to work in Pyongyang. He writes:

In two decades as a journalist, I had never encountered an assignment quite like this. It was not remotely dangerous in the overt sense; nobody was shooting at anyone or threatening us. And yet, we were never sure of the ground beneath our feet.

The idea of an invisible force underlies Pinckers’ bright photographs. At first glance they are unassuming: high-flash images of people and objects. A style which, very intentionally, references the bold, artificial lighting used in advertising and propaganda. His subjects look perfect, orderly, and new. As Osnos states in his article, “Pyongyang is a city of simulated perfection, without litter or graffiti—or, for that matter, anyone in a wheelchair. Its population, of 2.9 million, has been chosen for political reliability and physical health. The city is surrounded by checkpoints that prevent ineligible citizens from entering.”

The simulation is, however, imperfect. Small things in Pinckers’ photographs remind us of the isolation experienced by North Korean citizens: curious glances from children and passersby, who have likely never seen any, or at least very few, outsiders. Even, in a different way, the absence of brands like Nike or McDonalds in a large, developed city.

There are also extremely humanizing photographs. People enjoying a nice day at the park, or an improvised picnic. A woman tending to the plants in front of her house. Kids playing in a pool. These pictures serve as a testament to the fact that people living under a regime still experience life completely; still laugh and cry.

Now, the title, Red Ink, refers to an except, “The Missing Ink,” from Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Žižek, which is reproduced on the book’s rear flap. The first part reads:

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it's true; if it's written in red ink, it's false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’

All of the text in Red Ink is written in blue ink. The pictures seem to be as well. The problem, to lack the language needed to properly express the truth, underlies a project of this nature. Documenting North Korea is a necessarily convoluted task. Max Pinckers was offered a carefully curated tour, from which he photographed the strange, the surreal, and, ultimately, the invisible. Ending with a picture of a blank screen, an empty theater, we are left with with more questions than answers.

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Owen Kobasz edits the blog & newsletter at photo-eye. He holds a BA in the liberal arts from St. John's College and takes photos in his free time.