Truthfulness is what one expects from photographs about North Korea. However, there are many truths in North Korea: not in the murky post-modern sense that there are no facts to be shown, but because of the severe limitations on what one is, literally and prosaically, allowed to see. So, how can representations of grandiose decoys, representations whose very angle seems constrained by secretive officialdom, fulfill our longing for a glance at the horrors of a totalitarian regime? Shouldn’t we rather prefer a furtive glimpse of the terror unfolding behind the scenes?
We should not. Catching from the corner of the eye the sight of what might be a hungry child isn’t necessary to understand the madness of the regime. The few people in the surrounding emptiness give the scale of the buildings; the sober explanations, provided by the regime itself, give the scale of the folly. We don’t need to be told that the cooperative shop isn’t available to a starving population: one should be scared of a regime that builds to fool visitors. What Maxime Delvaux’s photos show is very real. Sufficiently real, indeed, to gently distillate a disturbing feeling, where the nauseating vertigo of some of the Borge’s Fictions mixes up with a genuinely Orwellian fear.
Social psychologists recently found that Western educated people tend to underestimate the extent to which they are influenced by irrational conspiracy theories. Propaganda works insidiously, or else it would be useless. So, if at first you only feel slightly amused, if it takes you a while to understand what it means for a country to display this, it’s all right. This is what these photos are for.