Look: I have this thing for cult of personality dictatorships. I’m just throwing this out there so it’s right in the open. I don’t like it any more than you do. I don’t know how this started or why or where or who. (Well, actually, the who is me.) All I do know is that they fascinate me. And horrify me. (Maybe there’s a German word that combines the two.) Some people get really deep into the minutiae of Civil War battles. Me, I like to read about Pol Pot. Is there a difference, really? I mean, aside from chronology and geography and a few dozen other things.
If I had to guess, I think it may have begun in high school, when I began to get “into” communism. And when I say I got “into” it, I mean I just read about it a lot after growing up at the tail end of the Cold War and being told it was evil and wrong but not really knowing what it was, exactly. So I taught myself, because school sure as hell wasn’t going to. Partly as a joke, and partly as an effort to be transgressive in the mildest, most retro way possible, I began to festoon school paraphenalia with communist-ish stuff, and carry around weird British Marxist magazines I found at Barnes and Noble (which still rank among the most heinously boring things I’ve ever read).
Of course, the more I read about communism, I realized that it kind of wound up killing hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Granted, I think that even if Communism The Idea had never been invented, sociopaths like Stalin or Mao would have wound up clawing their way to the top and murdering people via some other ideology. Still, it didn’t seem wise to place myself on that side of history.
In any case, I found out in the process that I didn’t like reading about economic theory or the struggle of the proletariat so much as I did reading about monstrosities like Mao’s Cultural Revolution. For ten years, Mao whipped teenagers into a revolutionary frenzy and set them loose on the country to publicly humiliate “counterrevolutionaries” and literally destroy anything that was “old” (of which there were many specimens in China). It turned the country into a bizarre, mutant hellscape in which kids were burning old scrolls and flogging their teachers in the street, an almost total rejection of the traditional Confucian reverence for elders and learning. All while Mao intoned ironic, Orwellian bromides like Let a hundred flowers bloom… and idiot hippies hung pictures of him on their walls. God, I hate hippies.
For someone like me, who enjoyed learning so much, The Cultural Revolution was a like a nightmare come to life. And yet, I wanted to learn more about it.
For years, I read anything on China, particularly if it concerned the Cultural Revolution. And when I plundered that mine, I moved on to other nations who tried to institute Maoist systems themselves. I was on a Cambodian kick for a while, because what the Khmer Rouge did there was the Cultural Revolution on steroids. When they took over, they emptied the cities and forced everyone to become a rice-farming peasant. They even said they were going to start their entire culture over again and declared the year of their takeover as Year Zero. Can you imagine something more chilling? Just saying Year Zero is fucking terrifying.
Part of my fascination dictates (ha) that I will read/watch/braille anything about North Korea. Team America managed to turn Kim Jong Il into a joke, but I don’t find anything funny about him at all. He, and the country he has under his thumb, are scary as hell. I find it ceaselessly fascinating, mostly because we know so little about it. Somehow, in the 21st century, in the age of the Internet and instant communication, a country has succeeded in completely suppressing its people and not allowing them to know what is really happening elsewhere in the world.
I can Google Map street-level views of Tehran, Tirana, Hanoi, Abbottabad, Beijing, and a million other current and former repressed municipalities. Now, look at what happens when you plug in “Pyongyang”. Not only can you not see any portion of the city, beyond where it’s approximately located. You can’t see anything in the entire country. It’s almost as chilling as this nighttime photo, where you can see plenty of lights on in South Korea and China, and almost nothing in North Korea.
So when I saw a link on the tumblr page Versus the World! about photos taken at “tourist sites” in North Korea, I had to click. The pictures were posted at Behance and taken by Charlie Crane, who spent a year trying to get permission to enter the nation for the purposes of taking photos. When he was finally allowed in, he was tailed at all times by government minders (as all foreign visitors to North Korea are) and not allowed to do or see anything said minders did not want him to.
The result are a series of completely staged photo opportunities. But the North Koreans worked so hard to stage these photo ops–to stage the lives of their entire citizenry, really–that in an odd way, they reveal far more than candid photos might. It displays perfectly what these people have been taught to value and display to the world, like a woman who stands rigidly and proudly in front of a backhoe. You can also see how much they’re straining simply to be in the presence of a foreigner, since the North Korean ideology preaches intensely xenophobic hatred of Westerners in general and Americans in particular.
They’re also eerie as hell. Like photos of wax statues that may or may not actually be alive. If you want to be fascinated/creeped out (again, Germans, make a compound word for this please), you must click on that link. You will not be disappointed, and you will also have trouble sleeping for a while.