April 12, 2012

David Guttenfelder, Ambassador

“I represent the U.S. and the outside world to them,” he said. “But the big responsibility is representing them to the outside world through my pictures – to understand what I see, to try to be as fair as I can and to dig as deep as I can.”— David Guttenfelder from: North Korea in Contrast (NYT Lens Blog)

I imagine it’s reasonable, at this point, to consider AP photographer David Guttenfelder an ambassador. After so many visits to North Korea (and so many thoughtful images), he has gained their trust and, with it, an unusual degree of access. What’s special and fascinating, though, is the way his wonderful photos apparently represent so differently to the (very sensitive) powers-that-be in that culture as compared to how they read to us in the West.

(click for larger sizes)

I imagine the North Koreans look at these factory shots, for example, and feel that Guttenfelder is paying them respect, capturing an ethic of hard work and industry, perhaps believing also that the photos must counter perceptions the country is barely scraping by. At the same time, I doubt the North Koreans would see what many Westerners would see, which is the most basic level of technology, a fundamental uniformity, a sterile emptiness and a sense of aridity.

…I also doubt the North Koreans would focus on the portrait of the women in the thread factory in terms of an intimate moment of personal introspection.

Again, in the second set of photos, I imagine the North Koreans would be proud of the monumentality and feel honored that their outsized icons and ideological testaments were receiving such such grand attention. What they probably wouldn’t pick up at all, however, is Guttenfelder’s skill at infusing the photos with all that irony, too, calling out the the comparative insignificance and cold anonymity of the tiny, yet animate citizens.

Where one might expect to see Guttenfelder’s portfolio put to the test with the North Koreans, however, is in the lingering reverberations of these missile test photos given the embarrassing launch failure early this morning.

Still, though these photos seem terribly awkward to me, I imagine Guttenfelder’s relationship with the North Koreans will survive.

(photos: David Guttenfelder/AP caption 1 & 2: North Korean women work in a thread factory in Pyongyang, North Korea on Monday, April 9, 2012.caption 3: A bronze monument of the late North Koran leader Kim Il Sung stands at the Samjiyon Grand Monument area in Samjiyon, North Korea at the base of Mount Paektu on Tuesday, April 3, 2012. caption 4: A North Korean man clears snow from a path next to a monument at the site of the Samjiyon Grand Monument in Samjiyon, North Korea on Tuesday, April 3, 2012.)

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Michael Shaw
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