Waiting for the Rainbow - Interview with Xiomara Bender
7.5.2024

Waiting for the Rainbow - Interview with Xiomara Bender

Warten auf den Regenbogen

208 pages

27,5 x 34 cm |10 5/6 x 13 3/8 in.

€ 60,00 | $ 70 | £ 49,95
go to book

Waiting for the Rainbow

Ten Years in North Korea

208 pages

27,5 x 34 cm |10 5/6 x 13 3/8 in.

approx. 160 color and b/w photographs

€ 60,00 | $ 70 | £ 49,95
go to book

North Korea is a country about which people basically know very little. In the information age, this is something of a paradox. Perhaps it is precisely this lack of information and the inability to "just google it" that explains the fascination with this country. Not to mention the fact that it is difficult to "just get an idea for yourself". Xiomara Bender has spent a lot of time in North Korea and has not only been able to take amazing photos over a period of ten years, but has also met many people and experienced many stories that have given her a unique insight into a country. We spoke to her about her motivation for traveling to this country and about what moves the inhabitants behind the facade of isolation as a state. 

 

teNeues:
Where does the fascination for North Korea come from? Or to put it another way: was it initially a private interest or rather "photographic ambition"?

Xiomara Bender:
It all started for me with my first trip to North Korea in 2011. I wanted to form my own opinion. Less biased by the well-known headlines about this supposedly well-known country, but rather a little unsettled by the official travel advice from the German Foreign Office, I arrived in a country that immediately captivated me. Much of it surreal, some of it bizarre - on balance a fascinating melange with a lingering and lasting interest in the people. I thought I understood that what people reveal during official encounters is not always necessarily in line with their inner lives. Many of the people portrayed met me with an unexpected openness. A smile when they realized they were going to be photographed and sometimes even a desire to present themselves to advantage - an air of endearing vanity that was human and touching.

With each subsequent trip, my curiosity and desire to capture and share the stories and essence of these people intensified. Observing and photographing on location broadened my perspective and became a means of documentation to explore and convey these different narratives in a subtle and delicate way.

North Korea is more than just a ruling Kim dynasty. Anyone who sees the country's founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il only as historical figures will not be able to understand North Korea. I think it is wrong to reduce North Korea to this aspect alone, but it would be just as fatal to overlook it. The FAZ journalist Jakob Strobel y Serra is the best way to describe it:

„North Korea is the most peculiar, alienating, incomprehensible, exciting travel destination on this earth, an aberration of history,
a ball of lightning from the alchemist's chamber of ideology, a country that you think is impossible until you see it.“

I've seen it every year since 2011, and 2019 was the ninth time I've seen it.

teNeues:
Do you already feel a longing for North Korea again or is the book "Waiting for the Rainbow" a kind of conclusion for you?

Xiomara Bender:
The country is still closed. But as soon as it reopens, I'll be ready to continue documenting it for myself, hopefully for the next 50 years.

teNeues:
Do you also know the "other side", i.e. South Korea, or does that not appeal to you at all?

Xiomara Bender:
I have not yet had the opportunity to visit South Korea, although Seoul is known as a vibrant metropolis with a rich cultural heritage. In recent years, however, the desire has grown in me to travel to the South for the first time and bring an exhibition with me at the same time. The reactions of South Koreans around the world, who are often first surprised and then impressed when they hear about me from their "brothers and sisters in the North", have long piqued my curiosity. Personally, it would be a fascinating experience to immerse myself in this society and see first-hand how people in the southern peninsula react to intimate portraits of their relatives in the north. It would be presumptuous to think that this could achieve anything on a political level, and yet I sometimes quietly think about perhaps making a very small contribution to intercultural understanding and promoting dialog between the two parts of Korea. At least among the people I am concerned with.

teNeues:
I imagine that it is a very complex bureaucratic act to get permission to enter North Korea as a photographer. Is that right? What hurdles do you have to overcome and what pitfalls are there on the way into the country? Or out of the country?

Xiomara Bender:
I can only speak for myself and perhaps an open-minded young lady is less skeptical, but no obstacles were put in my way. Neither when entering nor leaving the country. On the contrary, I would describe myself as someone who is very demanding. My constant questions about possibilities, places, can we talk to this person, stop here, stop there, can I ask them if I can take a portrait of them, can we ask them what they think.

teNeues:
A question that is probably based on the false assumption that the people in North Korea must be secretive: Do you get to talk to the people you portray on your trips to North Korea? How can one imagine that?

Xiomara Bender:
English has also been taught at the university in Pyongyang for nine years now, which makes it easier and easier to communicate with young people in English. Sometimes it seems to me that this creates its own dynamics. While my translator is still giving explanations in Korean, my counterpart has already understood everything and positions himself skillfully or simply looks into my camera for an endearingly long time while I smile behind it.

Example of the photograph of the little girl with the Fanta can, in front of a concrete landscape. She was walking in front of me on the escalator, coming out of a subway station almost 200 meters deep. She was walking with her grandfather and had turned around a few times. Once at the top, I made brief contact with the grandfather and told him that I would like to take a photo of his granddaughter, all non-verbally with hands and looks. He immediately agreed, laughing and understanding. You don't do that if you're afraid of strangers or any contact with me would be "dangerous".

I also never had to present pictures when leaving the country. Yes, there are rules and it's better to follow them locally, but I find many of them easy to buy. Try photographing the military in any other country in the world, but that's not my main focus, because it's all well known.

I also enjoyed the moments in recent years when young North Koreans wanted to take pictures with me on their smartphones. It may be that the whole thing is a big staging game. I certainly can't rule that out. But it often seems authentic and honest to me. Moments of genuine curiosity and brief encounters that briefly transcend the boundaries of politics and propaganda.

[tn-gallery-4574]

teNeues:
In your pictures, the streets of larger cities often look disturbingly empty. Is there really so much less individual traffic on the roads?

Xiomara Bender:
For a country of 26 million people, the bicycle remains the dominant mode of transportation. However, in less than a generation, North Korea has undergone a significant transformation characterized by an emerging market, increasing diversity and more modern lifestyles. The introduction of multiple cab companies and the rise of individual drivers have led to congestion and increased traffic density in Pyongyang and the other major cities. When I drove through the country for the first time in 2011, we were the only ones, so I can only see one big change here in comparison.

teNeues:
The people in your pictures live up to the name of the book. They often appear "enraptured", as if they were dreaming, or as if they had just been torn out of a dream. North Korea is not known for allowing its citizens to move around very freely. Foreign journalists and photographers certainly not. Why do your pictures appear as if you were able to move "more freely"? And how do people react to a photographer who is obviously not from North Korea and can apparently move around/photograph freely?

Xiomara Bender:
You are quite right, there is no freedom to travel in the country, neither for nationals nor for foreigners. Due to numerous trips over the years, I have built up a level of trust with my local companions and I can reflect on a wide range of different experiences. The country is constantly changing, day by day, step by step. These changes are not always easy to understand and sometimes they even seem to be going backwards. But despite these challenges and ambiguities, there are also moments of progress and hope that allow us to look to the future.

Initially, the doctrine seemed to be to turn away from foreigners, not to make contact, but at the latest since Kim Jon Un came to power, something seemed to be changing in the population from year to year.

One memorable experience was the first time a young student approached me in a subway in 2015, obviously proud to share her language skills with me and learn more about me. Then there are areas like Samjiyŏn in the north, which have only been open to foreigners since 2019. For the most part, a very archaic society lives there, which was not used to foreigners and remained skeptical or fearful at a distance. Nevertheless, I also found a variety of personalities there: shy, good-humored, bad-tempered, curious and humorous people.

I always managed to meet them with a simple smile, genuine curiosity and, above all, no preachy arrogance, and I got the same in return. I would say that you can tell from my photographs that they were taken exclusively with the consent of the people portrayed. The people in my photos are both ambassadors and projection screens. My empathy in taking the pictures, the photographically captured emotional world of those portrayed and the emotional horizon of experience must be visible and at eye level; because under the prevailing conditions, looking into the faces is presumably the only way to actually recognize change in this country and to be able to continue to document it as a process over the years.

What I can say for myself is that North Korea is unrecognizable since my first visit. The cityscape is becoming more and more modern, people dress more individually, cell phones and traffic are no longer a rarity. However, the freedoms have not really increased, but the supply situation is better, the years of hunger are long gone and a middle class has developed in the cities. Leisure, sports and educational facilities, admittedly only accessible to a privileged section of the urban population for the time being, show signs of a tentative burgeoning self-determination. Tentatively. Cautiously. Only a few at first. There will be more. The fact that we don't notice any of this is partly due to the system's bizarrely perfect isolation. But it's also down to us.

[tn-gallery-4575]

teNeues:
The "Waiting for the Rainbow"... Is it more a liberation from the repressions that the regime brings with it or do people sense how different the world beyond the border is? Do people long for a "reunification" or are all these thoughts "too private" or even "dangerous"?

Xiomara Bender:
The title "Waiting for the Rainbow" summarizes the essence of my experiences after ten years and points to the hope and longing that often exist amidst the challenges and mysteries of North Korea. A rainbow is only created from light and rain, it is a symbol of diversity and connection as it is made up of many different colors, but it also stands for unfulfilled dreams and unachieved goals, but I would like to leave the reader with their own room for interpretation.

With a growing middle class and an estimated 200,000 North Koreans living or traveling abroad, there are certainly more and more who have an idea of what it's like beyond their borders. And yet the majority of these people know nothing about the world "out there". They live in an isolated reality that is shaped by the ruling elite. For them, their father and grandfather, who are simultaneously worshipped as the nation's only gods, are like a fusion of Beethoven, Einstein and Usain Bolt in a single person. But most of them have never heard of these outstanding personalities.

The change that will lead the people of North Korea to freedom may still be a long time coming. But it has begun on a small scale. I have seen it. My hope is that more and more people who have looked away so far will look.

teNeues:
Are there places or areas in North Korea that you have not yet had in front of your camera lens and that particularly appeal to you?

Xiomara Bender:
Oh yes, even a lot! Every year, new regions or areas have been made accessible to foreigners. This is also due to the fact that hotels and roads have to be built there first. I very much hope that this will continue to be the case once the country reopens. I would also like to go in search of the unknown North Korean woman I met at Kim Il Sung Square at a bus stop in 2015.

teNeues:
Are you worried that the publication of the pictures in a book could mean consequences for you in North Korea? And what might these look like?

Xiomara Bender:
After so many years of experience, I'm not worried about the possible consequences of publishing my pictures in a book. My travels often take me out of my comfort zone and I feel most comfortable when I am on the move. With each new geographical location, my personal perspective changes and I am constantly adapting to my new context without expecting everything to be the same as at home. I believe that people should be met with curiosity, openness and respect, and I have found that my photographic work and my critical questions are usually respected. Even my first book with Kehrer Verlag had no negative repercussions. So I felt completely free in the design of the book as well as the texts - and I'm looking forward to the response myself.

Thank you very much for this interview, dear Xiomara Bender.

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