More North Korea

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

Noko Jeans
, ‘By Train to Pyongyang’

A brief update on the previous post – right after I published it, I came across a more photographically interesting gallery of North Korea photos taken on a business trip to Pyongyang.  There’s also a small photobook!

It’s short but interesting and brings to mind pictures of the eastern block right after it crumbled; work by Luc Delahaye, Lise Safarti, innumerable others, work that, to some extent, is still being done today.  Can you imagine the tidal wave of photographic coverage if the reclusive regime falls and access opens up to the country…  Tools like North Korea Uncovered, however, lead me to think that this time around coverage would be a bit different.  The former USSR was such an interesting subject because it was so… opaque to Westerners.  I suppose that will, to a certain extent be true in this hypothetical case, but things like the smuggled video cameras in Burma and the limited photographic work already being done in the DPRK make me think that all it would take to radically transform the story from a fingerpointing look-what-sorry-state-this-country-is-in to a much more nuanced and interesting view is a couple dozen digital cameras given to people who have likely never known that such tools even existed…

North Korea

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

Tongil Street in Winter‘ by Kernbeisser

Via Photography Prison, I came across this interesting Flickr set of Pyongyang in winter by Kernbeisser (who has alot of other North Korea Photos, too) which launched me on this extended internet recollection of interesting things I’ve recently read on the reclusive North Korean regime. Yes, I know, none of this is strictly photo related, but, of course, photography is all about building relationships between otherwise unconnected subjects, so I think you’ll forgive me for this.

Due to the general prohibition on journalistic access to North Korea, the only real way to get a look at the country is via tourist photos, like the Pyongyang set, or via satellite photos, available to us on Google Earth.  If you’d really like to spend some time trying to figure out the country, the North Korea Uncovered add on is invaluable.  Pieced together from news reports and tales from defectors, it provides a map key to the country’s infrastructure, military installations, and the yawning divide between how the country’s tiny elite and the great mass of the population live. [Found via a fantastic On The Media story]

It’s also worth noting, at this point, the excellent 3-part series on North Korea, shot by Shane Smith.  The thing culminates at the Arirang Mass Games, a massively creepy demonstration of autocratic power. Definitely worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.

But the limited access provided to tourists in North Korea, like the tour that Smith took, is not the only diplomatic effort the regime engages in. Besides blackmailing foreign governments by returning kidnapped foreign citizens in return for visits by high profile politicians, North Korea has also opened a series of restaurants in places popular with South Korean Tourists…

But the best recent thing I’ve read on North Korea was a several page article in the always excellent Cabinet Magazine (whose most recent issue has a photo by Alessandra Sanguinetti on the cover, incidentally) on the kidnapping of Choe Eun-hui and her ex-husband Shin Sang-ok. Entitled “All Monsters Must Die,” by Magnus Bärtås and Fredrik Ekman, it tells the story of the couple’s kidnapping by the agents of Kim Jong Il and how the film obsessed dictator built a studio and forced them to create films intended to rival the best that South Korea had produced. Unfortunately, the article is not available online, but I was able to find a telling of the story by the BBC, though I assure you it’s worth tracking down a back issue of Cabinet to read all about it.


Monday, March 15th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Pete Brook (who occasionally comments here), over on Prison Photography, just ran part five of a series of posts (123, and 4) on photographers’ activities surrounding the death of Fabienne Cherisma in Port-Au-Prince on the 19th January, 2010.

I have nothing to add except quote Pete in his text of part 4:

I’d like to state that I have no agenda here, I am simply interested in constructing the scene in a wider context. Photographers don’t work in a vacuum and we must demand to turn their images inside out to understand the context in which the images were created.

The series is good and important.  Go read it.

UPDATE: Brook has continued with the series finally finishing, it seems, with part 12. Links to all below…

Part 1: Fabienne Cherisma
Part 2: More on Fabienne Cherisma
Part 3: Furthermore on Fabienne Cherisma
Part 4: Yet more on Fabienne Cherisma
Part 5: Interview with Edward Linsmier
Part 6: Interview with Jan Grarup
Part 7: Interview with Paul Hansen
Part 8: Interview with Michael Winiarski
Part 9: Interview with Nathan Weber
Part 10: Interview with James Oatway
Part 11: Interview with Nick Kozak
Part 12: Two Months On


Friday, September 25th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Merging Boundaries
Ian Teh/Panos Pictures

We seem to be awash in an ever-present pining for the glory days, when pictures had a moral authority and weight, and when lots and lots and lots of photographers were able to make a living shooting socially concerned black and white documentary work.

Unfortunately, those days are gone.  The economics of journalism in general have fundamentally changed in ways so well documented I won’t bother bringing them up here.  And the moral authority of images has been undermined by what I would consider a good thing: People’s increasing visual sophistication.  The average person is much less likely to look at a newspaper or magazine and expect to know the whole truth from one shocking picture.

Still, though, much photojournalism is caught in a self regarding loop, photographing the same subjects in a style that borrows heavily from Christian art of the renaissance – pietas, madonnas, crucifixions, moral stories of suffering and redemption, the whole deal.

Now none of what I just said is particularly new or original – it pops up again and again, but we seem to be having the same discussions over and over again.  Witness the latest flare-up in what seems to be an annual event – the arguments over World Press Photo.  This year it’s Stephen Mayes, the outgoing WPP Secretary, who’s provoked the firestorm (witness the comments!), as noted over on Colin Pantall‘s blog.

Colin goes through an interesting discussion of why we all photograph the same things.  His general point is that we seem to be photographing similarly because we are trying to shoot for others expectations of the world and not, to use the cliche, being true to our own vision:

If we do that, we might as well go and work in a call centre or flip burgers because there is more passion and feeling and depth in that than replicating someone else’s work and vision, than doing something we have no real involvement with.

The replication is the thing though. Why do we all replicate other people’s work? Perhaps one of the reasons is this is what we are told we should do – by newspapers, magazines, our professors and lecturers (they have to do something to keep their students minds of the fact that 90% of them aren’t going to make a penny from what they have studied for 3 years), the blogosphere and things like portfolio reviews.

I think some of this may be true, but a bigger question for me is why photographers seem to be so backwards looking in general – why does photojournalism seem to be such a redoubt of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality? Why are art photographers so obsessed with replicating various styles of painting?  Why, as Stephen Mays points out and Colin Pantall widens, does photography “…investigate a very limited series of tropes in a very limited series of visual approaches, becoming a self replicating machine that churns of copies of itself in perpetual motion,” and, more to the point, why is asking Nan Goldin to speak, an artists who last contributed something original to photography 20 years ago, still considered a provocative act?

I dunno.  I’ve been reading about this stuff in a specifically photojournalism context for too long this afternoon.  Start sifting through the following list if you’re feeling like being bewildered…

The World Press Photo winners this year
Stephen Mayes speech excerpts
and full length audio
Foto8 World Press Photo report of the same event
Bromberg and Chanarin’s firestorm from last year and in pdf form. Look at the comments here, too.
Foto8 tries to deal with the criticism of that essay. And again, repetitively.
Tim Hetherington, a WPP winner and excellent photog, takes some of this on. It’s also where the 10-90 ratio comes from.
Concientious’ take in one and two and three parts, last year. I hate that Alec Soth can post his comment and no one else can.
Clearly fault for the current state of photojournalism is widely shared. There are structural problems too, duh.
Yeah, I know it’s not easy. But still.
Check out the discussions section on BURN magazine. Some interesting things there…
Some new directions? Here’s a great list of where to start.

Totalitarian Kitsch

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott


The Wall Street Journal has a short piece on the recent photo (shown above) of Kim Jong Il and Bill Clinton which I find weirdly fascinating.

This week the world’s eyes were on the extraordinary photograph of former President Bill Clinton seated next to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il—an official picture taken at the end of talks that led to the freeing of two imprisoned American journalists. Mine, I confess, were elsewhere, continually diverted to the photo’s dramatic backdrop, an enormous mural of crashing seas and fluttering birds rendered in lurid greens and brilliant whites.

You can find a wider shot of this picture here and a bunch of other portraits taken here (at the bottom).

I wonder what kind of photo-education the state’s official photographers recieve:  Do you think they get photo history?  If you asked them, who do you think they would state their greatest influences are? Don’t forget, these photographs are produced for an international audience, not just a North Korean one so there must be some sort of styling – these aren’t purely utilitarian photographs, like a police lineup.  Someone chose the background and the arrangement, and someone makes visual decisions for all of the photos the Korean Central News Agency (more info here) releases…

Le Bal

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Nicholas Calcott for Le Bal
Nicholas Calcott for Le Bal

So, it’s been quiet around here for the last week – going through the final stages of a website for a project I’ve been working on for the last few months:

Our dream is to transform an old Parisian dance hall, just minutes from Place de Clichy, into a venue for the documentary image (photography, video and film).

A place to present, compare and examine the many possible ways of addressing reality.

A place to question the issues involved in documentary creation; issues that span aesthetics and politics.

A place to debate the conditions in which documentary images are produced, published and seen.

A place to think about what a “document” really is:  part investigation, part experience, part recording and part creation.

A place to explore new visual forms that can convey reality in all its complexity.

Go check it out at

Iconic Photojournalism

Friday, June 19th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

The New York Times
The New York Times (uncredited photograph – a practice they go with when they believe publishing the name of the photographer puts him/her at especial risk)

Sorry, major major deadline Monday, keeping my posting light.  But check out Fred Ritchin‘s blog After Photography for more on the following. He brings to bear an unusually perceptive eye on what has become the rather tired discussion of citizen journalism:

Instead of seeing a few strong images, we will probably need to get used to seeing many dozens or even hundreds of photographs taken, perhaps of the same scene, without any editorial filter. It will demand more of the reader who will have to try and figure out what this mass of imagery is saying. This will also make it harder to wrongly accuse any images of being fakes because so many other photographs and videos will corroborate, to a significant extent, what any particular image shows.

Instead of a single iconic photograph we will often be looking at imagery made by people who, as amateurs, are not schooled in the history of photography–they will be making imagery for information, not to replicate or create new icons. As such, their imagery will probably often be both more original and more awkward, but it may also make it more difficult to find the telling metaphors. In this sense, the imagery will be more modest and probably more credible.

Too many good thoughts to adequately block quote it – you should really read through the original, here.

And I know I went with the professional photography image for this post, but you should really check out the flickr streams coming out of Iran.  An especially good one is that of Mousavi1388.

Related: This youtube video which sends shivers up my spine in admiration.  They’re chanting “Allahu akbar” (God is great), the same thing that was chanted from rooftops during the ’79 revolution.


Friday, June 12th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Stephen Crowley / NY Times
Stephen Crowley / NY Times

As has been widely reported aroung, the NY Times has a new photography blog, which seems to not yet have hit its stride.  That being said, it’s pretty good, though a little overbroad for my taste.  One particular project to note was their recently published photo essay by Stephen Crowley, which gave a completely different view of Obama’s recent visit to Cairo than the ones that were widely shown.  See it here, though the images are way too small.


Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Invincible Cities
Camilo José Vergara
, from Invincible Cities

I’m reworking next week’s essay, so we’ll have a slight break this week.  As a bit of a preview, though, be sure to check out the Invincible Cities database, which I’ll be touching on next week.

Clémence de Limburg

Thursday, January 15th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Clémence de Limburg
Cl√©mence de Limburg, from her project ‘Satmar’

Cl√©mence de Limburg, like Jessica Dimmock, graduated from ICP‘s documentary photography program. And like Dimmock, de Limburg’s work is concerned with exploring and exposing a self-isolated community within the city. Instead of heroin addicts, de Limburg’s work is concerned with the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in New York – she’s shot them on her own and for a really interesting article that appeared in New York Magazine last summer.