Kim Jong Il and North Korea

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By the mid-1990s, North Korea was in deep trouble. It looked as if the isolated communist bastion was on the verge of collapse. A number of crises all happened in quick succession that each threatened to cause the regime to fall apart. Firstly, you had the fall of the USSR and the rest of the communist bloc, who North Korea had depended upon. Food and fuel provided by the friendly communist world, at bargain-basement prices, had been key to the regime’s survival. Once that dried up, North Korea was screwed.

kimjongil01The economy fell apart and complete social collapse was on the cards. It didn’t produce enough food to feed its people (only 20% of its land is suitable for agriculture) and now it couldn’t pay for imports. Added to this, 1995 and 1996 saw a series of floods which destroyed both crops in the fields and centralised grain stores. 1997 brought a drought.  The result was famine. The exact numbers of deaths is unknown, but estimates range from 900,000 to 3 million people died. Whatever the precise number is, it is safe to say that vast numbers of people died.

kimjongil02Then 1994 saw the arrival of another existential crisis for North Korea; the death of the founding father, Kim Il Sung. A charismatic dictator, he had established an all-pervasive personality cult that demanded complete worship of the self-styled Great Leader by the entire population. His death saw the rise of his untried and untested son, Kim Jong Il (known as the Dear Leader) to take his place. Leadership transitions in dictatorships are always fraught with danger as all political legitimacy in such states is tied to the person of the leader. Therefore loyalty to the Dear Leader could not be assured, particularly when millions were starving.

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In response, Kim Jong Il intensified the songun policy. Basically the military first songun involved channelling all resources into the armed forces at the expense of everything else. This strategy was tantamount to applying the simple guns versus butter macroeconomic economic model to a closed economy. The stark choice the regime faced was to either feed the people or concentrate everything on maintaining a strong military. Resources were limited. They chose the military option. Widespread suffering, starvation and death was the result.

kimjongil04Everything had to be sacrificed in order to keep a strong army. Thing else mattered. There was a terrible and ruthless logic to this approach for the regime. The army was needed to prevent both internal and external threats from causing the regime to fall apart. Firstly, by making sure that the armed forces were well fed and insulated from the collapse it meant their loyalty could be counted upon.

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When things start to go wrong in a dictatorship, there is always the possibility that angry, disgruntled and poorly fed soldiers might stage a coup and pull everything down. By letting the military know that their best interests were served by remaining loyal to the Kim dynasty, that possibility was diminished. The interests of the military and the new leader were now one and the same. This also meant that they could be relied upon to crush any protest or dissent amongst an increasingly desperate and hungry population.

kimjongil07Secondly, North Korea uses its military power as a way to intimidate other countries. As well as its weapons of mass destruction, it has the world’s forth largest army. The aggressive tactics, regular skirmishes with South Korea, and the doom-laden rhetoric that that North Korea regularly uses against its enemies in South Korea, Japan and the USA are all designed to show that the North Korean leadership is determined to fight to the death in order to survive. The implicit threat was that a terminally collapsing regime could decide to go out with a bang rather than a whimper and launch an invasion of South Korea or attack Japan.

kimjongil08But even without this, the sudden collapse of North Korea threatened to cause a massive refugee problem as millions of desperate and starving people threatened to destabilise both South Korea and China as they abandoned a failed state. Fearful of both a catastrophic military conflict and the sudden collapse of North Korea foreign countries did a deal with the devil.

kimjongil09Cynically using the starving North Korean population as pawns in this geo-political game, the North Korean regime demanded food and other aid from foreign countries. Vague promises of reform were made by the North Koreans which they had no intention of keeping.

kimjongil11As the distribution of the food aid was largely controlled by the regime, they used it to feed the army and also keep control over the population. Loyal sections of the population were rewarded with food – disloyal groups had to fend for themselves. Food was used to regain a degree of control over the population and prevent the country from collapsing. In fairness to the outside world, they were placed in an impossible position; they either had to deliberately let millions starve to death or else send food aid which would enable this brutal regime to survive.

kimjongil12Printed in 1995, one year after the death of his father Kim Il Sung, this book is designed to show how loyal the North Korean army is to the new leader Kim Jong Il. (I don’t speak Korean so I am unable to give the exact title). It begins with the standard myth of Kim Jong Il’s messiah-like birth in a secret camp in Mount Paektu, which also appears on the cover. Then we see images of the younger Kim in training, following in his father’s footsteps as he learns how to run the country as he sets about building a bright future for the people. This is all designed to show a direct continuity between the deceased dictator and the new leader as the only true successor.

kimjongil15Kim junior is then shown on his own, taking the reins of power as photograph after photograph shows be-medalled generals listening to his every word. Crowds clap and cheer. The Dear Leader is central to all aspects of the armed forces, from planning strategy with his generals to inspecting the ties of soldiers. In a chilling juxtaposition, images of a beaming Kim Jong Il are paired with explosions and other demonstrations of military might designed to show that all power rests with him. The omnipotent leader sees and controls everything.

kimjongil16Then the narrative shifts to the lowly soldiers on the ground. As well as the usual images of military might – missiles, tanks, planes and ships at the ready, we see portraits of ferociously screaming soldiers. This is all the more poignant, as the regime deliberately inculcated the idea that ordinary soldiers would be prepared to engage in suicide attacks in fighting against the enemy.This had some veracity as many North Korean spies and infiltrators had committed suicide rather than be captured in attacks in South Korea and Japan.

kimjongil17Other images show ordinary soldiers expressing their gratitude to the regime, and Kim Jong Il himself, for the happy life they are prepared to fight and die for. Here we see photographs of the showcase capital and the architectural achievements of the regime used to show that they truly care about the welfare of the ordinary people. Young and old are shown united in their complete loyalty to the Kim dynasty as they parade through the streets. Again, the message here is that the entire country is utterly loyal to the Dear Leader. Of the famine, poverty and brutality that pervaded North Korea at that time (and still does), we see nothing.

kimjongil18The central message of this book was to convince readers that North Korea’s enemies were facing an utterly fanatical foe who was prepared to stop at nothing in order to survive.

And it worked.

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Let There Be A World – Felix Greene

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With the invention of nuclear weapons, mankind now has the ability to destroy everything. Previously, we were limited in the scope and scale of destruction we could create – now we can completely wipe out all life on our planet. That changes everything.

In the context of Cold War tensions between East and West, ostensibly over which long-dead economist was best, the omnipresent threat of global annihilation was the elephant in the room. Sometimes, during periods of crisis, we actually acknowleged the presence of this monster. But most people did their best to suppress this knowledge and get on with everyday life. The arms race between the two blocs was a constant feature of the Cold War with each side vying with the other to come up with more innovative and destructive means of killing each other. Atom bombs became hydrogen bombs, which went from being carried on planes to being stuck on missiles that were able to reach any part of the globe in minutes. This era was defined by immense levels of spending on more and newer weaponry at the expense of everything else. The sheer, immense horror of what was created is staggering to behold for any sane person. Carl Sagan summed up the Cold War arms race best: “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches. The other has seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.” But, locked in this cycle of fear and distrust, in the simple binary world of East-v-West any form of dissent was presented as an act of treason. In an attempt to somehow justify this pursuit of  insanity, MAD (Mututally Assured Destruction) was advanced as a serious strategic theory. Now, in the twisted logic and the paranoia of the Cold War, nuclear arsenals were transformed into the guarantors of security and peace. MAD held that our enemies would be prevented from attacking us for fear of retaliation in kind, producing a balance of terror. Various shadowy think tanks devoted time and immense resources towards developing models (such as Game Theory) in an attempt to predict and control the outcomes in this high-stakes global chess game. Yet widespread public disquiet was always present just beneath the surface.

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It is interesting to see how the popular reaction to the power of these weapons shifted through time as expressed in the movies that dealt with the theme. These are important because they show how the unthinkable was presented to audiences riddled with suppressed anxieties about the subject. These movies also had an educational value. By using identifiable characters they taught viewers what kind of behaviour was expected of them in such a crisis. During the 1950s the consequences of such a war were minimised and survival was presented as a very distinct possibility. Social cohesion was paramount and unquestioning deference to authority figures was presented as being the key to our survival. A particularly good example can be seen in the 1954 TV movie, Atomic Attack (sponsored by Motorola no less). Here, all the horror occurs offscreen and we follow an family straight out of 1950s central casting as they anxiously wait for news about pop who cheerfully put on his fedora and went to work after a wholesome all-American family breakfast. Everybody in the ‘burbs looks a bit concerned about New York getting nuked and all that radiation floating around, but the authorities swing into action and soon have everything under control. The wonders of medicine has everybody up on their feet after an inconvenient dose of radiation sickness. No real need to worry. (Alas, poor pop gets fried offscreen but mom cheerfully perseveres to hold the family together in spite of her unspoken fears for the future).

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The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 changed all that. Popular culture, in tandem with the growth of a generation who were more critical of authority, began appreciate the horrors that could be unleashed by such a war. For example, Panic in the Year Zero! (1962) envisaged the need for rugged individualism and a return to the gunslinging, frontier ways in the face of lawlessness (only for a little while – just until the panic subsided and order was restored). But the idea that everything we took for granted would be destroyed utterly had taken root. Indeed, it can be argued that the presence of nuclear weapons directly contributed to the undermining of traditional authority. Now, a younger generation, presented with a clear demonstration of the failure and incompetence of those in charge (who had created this hair-trigger scenario of global annihilation) lost all faith in the idea that those who ruled over the rest of us were somehow smarter and knew what they were doing. Once that happens, then everything is up for grabs. These developments were paralleled in how nuclear war was represented in the popular media.  In Britain this was best explored in the groundbreaking 1965 docudrama by Peter Watkins, The War Game, which portrayed a nuclear attack through the use of traditional documentary filming and editing techniques to produce a fictional film.  This movie so alarmed the Wilson government that they put pressure on the B.B.C. to pull the plug (particularly as it highlighted their embarrasing u-turn on their pre-election pledge about unilateral nuclear disarmament). As was stated afterwards; “In the event, the effect of the film has been judged by the B.B.C. to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Interestingly, this film reflects the recent past insofar as it portrays the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain in distinctly Second World War terms (just as the American version used mythical elements from the Old West to represent the un-representable for a US audience). Thus, nuclear war becomes a form of neo-Blitz with higher casualties, greater destruction and more radiation, with everybody scurrying around in army-surplus tin helmets left over from the previous war. But in this film, for the first time, we see a more detailed exploration of how nuclear war had the potential to change everything. The optimism of earlier representations disappears. Now, viewers were confronted with representations of terror, injured and sick victims, hastily organised mass-cremations of bodies, food-riots (in a rather dated reference, it notes that even the respectable middle-classes may be inclined towards such lawless behaviour), summary executions by military tribunal and a bleak future of radiation poisoning and death. But I suppose it could be argued that all such depictions were inherently optimistic insofar as they envisaged a scenario in which any human beings would be left alive in the aftermath of an overwhelming nuclear assault.

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So, in this atmosphere of raw, palpable fear the anti-nuclear movement grew. Felix Greene, a leading left wing figure (whose book Vietnam! Vietnam! I reviewed previously) edited this protest book published in 1963 by the Fulton Publishing Company of California. Using a mixture of journalistic, commercial stock and official government images, Greene produces a narrative which is an impassioned cry for an end to this collective insanity. (In many cases, these images appear to have been chosen solely for their visual impact rather than accuracy in representation. Photographs made by Ansel Adams, Werner Bischof and Andreas Feininger are all used.) In order to visually represent the invisible dangers posed by radiation, Greene adopts the (probably predictable) strategy of relying heavily upon the imagery of children to illustrate the long term genetic damage caused by exposure to fallout. Such images are used by aid agencies the world over because the message they send is apparently clear and unambiguous, cutting through the empathetic barriers of the viewer who may have difficulty in identifying with distant victims. (By contrast, images of injured adults – who may look different from us, be regarded as our enemies or somehow culpable for their own demise – are less favoured because they may be subject to a more nuanced and less sympathetic response on the part of a distant viewer.) As the text states: “because of the bomb tests already carried out no child anywhere in the world can drink milk that is free of poison caused by radioactive fall-out.” These photographs of healthy and happily innocent children are contrasted with dark images of horrifically deformed, stillborn babies from Nagasaki. The net effect of such an emotive juxtaposition is to produce a causal link between the decisions made in the present with the irrevocable long-term effects they may have upon future generations.

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The next section of the book deals with the legacy of the past. Here, imagery of the civilisations and man’s achievements are combined with a text in which a simplified, linear view of human progress and future development is presented to the reader. The extensive use of black within the design of the book provokes an ominous, unsettling sense of danger. Here, the present generation are presented as a link in a much longer chain that links the past and stretches far off towards a bright future. Nuclear weapons threaten to break this chain. As visual proof of how everything mankind has accomplished so far can be utterly destroyed, Greene uses Japan as a case study. This begins with a full page image of a peaceful Japanese market scene followed by a dramatic double-page spread of post-atomic Hiroshima as a desolate grey wasteland through which a line of dazed survivors trudge. Following this, another double-page spread from Nagasaki appears; here we see a devastated, bleak urban ruinscape populated now by the blackened, charred remains of those who once lived there. The next few pages depict the survivors. Traumatised and clearly in pain, they are shown in a state of shock, passive in the face of imminent death which they are powerless to prevent. Again, women and children feature heavily in these photographs (Yosuke Yamahata’s images from Nagasaki are used extensively). Due to the distinct racial and cultural difference between the Japanese victims of the atomic bombs and the American viewer of the 1960s, the depiction of women and children as primary victims is used as a device to create empathy and serve as a metaphor for lost innocence.

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If the previous sections were used to show just how much of a threat nuclear weapons were to life on Earth, Greene uses the next section to undermine Cold War arguments about security; of course we don’t want to have these horrible weapons, but if the other side has nukes then we have to have more nukes. MAD did produce a stable state of constant terror between East and West but at a tragic cost. In particular, this era saw the emergence of the military-industrial complex as a concept to describe the nebulous military, bureaucratic and commercial interests who all had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Interestingly, the term was first coined by Eisenhower in an unprecedented farewell speech at the end of his term as office as president in which he warned against this shift of power to unaccountable forces that posed a threat to democratic accountability (Khrushchev termed the Soviet equivalent as the Metal-Eaters alliance). Greene shows us the slick new products of military spending with new missiles rolling off the assembly line ready to be launched from their silos. Yet the security this technology appears to offer is elusive; an image of a pile of junked fighter planes, yesterday’s high-tech wonder-weapons, is captioned with a quote from Eisenhower: “we pay for a single fighter plane with half a million bushels of wheat …Is there no other way this world can live?” The answer to this is provided in the final section of the book which offers a sliver of optimism (in distinctly modernist terms). Although science and technology have brought us to the brink of disaster, it is not too late; they can be used to provide a better future for us all.

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In the context of early 1960s society, shocked to the core by the Cuban Missile Crisis, fuelled by paranoia and repressed anxiety about the omnipresent possibility of nuclear annihilation, the traditional deference to political authority broke down, particularly amongst the young. Horrified by the nuclear trap that the generation who had fought in the Second World War had bequeathed them, they turned against it. For those who wanted a change in this terrifying status quo their argument was persuasively simple; reduce the tension and get rid of the nukes because the alternative was mass extinction. There was no alternative. Morally, the possession and use of such weapons is completely indefensible. There is no argument you can use to counter calls for peace in these terms. In response, those in authority shifted the debate by arguing that such calls would play into the hands of their enemies and place the Western world in jeopardy. This book is an attempt on Greene’s part to rebut these claims by creating a photo essay that links the past and the future with the terrifying present in an attempt to convince the viewer that this insanity cannot go on. For most of us, such debates have been happily consigned to the past and appear of little relevance today. The problem appears to have been solved. Yet, despite the collapse of the political systems that spawned this terrible arms race, the arsenals remain. While arguments about dead economists no longer have the potential to destroy us all, other factors that produced this situation (such as rivalry between competing states over the control of resources) remain in firmly place. But in the holiday from history we have taken since the end of the Cold War, we just don’t want to think about it.

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365 – Alexander Aksakov

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The military is an institution in which people (usually young males) are isolated from the rest of society for a defined period of time, given uniforms to strip them of individual identity, are subjected to arbitrary rules and discipline, and exposed to a cult of violence. This process is designed to produce people who will do what they’re told, when they’re told. They will ultimately kill on command. That, at least, is the rationale for all the training. However, once you start looking at the military in this way, then it starts to resemble a quasi-religious institution that imposes a new set of values and ideas upon individuals (through peer-pressure and strict conformity within a rigid hierarchy) in order to produce almost unquestioning obedience.

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Many countries still use conscription. A product of late-eighteenth century European ideas about having large armies for national defence (particularly in response to the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution) it has waned in effectiveness with technology. Some countries still have it, but for most of those drafted it is merely a rite of passage that has to be endured. Certainly, very few actually expect to put the test and end up in the trenches somewhere (in Western Europe anyway).  Russia is one of those countries that still relies upon conscription to produce a large army, which it uses to enhance its power and prestige as a world power. It also performs the task of nation-building insofar as it is a way of inspiring patriotism towards the artificial, constructed entities that we are supposed to feel loyal towards.

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However, for the individual suddenly thrust into such an organisation, it can be a traumatic experience to say the least. The Russian military also has a reputation for strict discipline, bullying, violence and the brutalising of recruits, leading to numerous instances of suicide. This is usually tolerated within such institutions (to a degree) as a necessary process of toughening up their raw recruits and a way of inculcating the aggressive culture of violence required by the army. However, the psychological trauma and carnage this can wreak on a personal level is incalculable.

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Like The Myth of the Airborne Warrior I reviewed some time ago, this book is a personal narrative of the photographer’s experience as a soldier for a year (hence the title).  Using a smuggled 35mm camera (a Smena 8m – the Russian army forbids cameras), Aksakov documents his life in the army in order to produce a visual record of his experiences. Here, we see the visual journal of an individual struggling to come to terms with this enforced institutional incarceration. Enhanced by the flat Russian light and the erratic camera, in tandem with the personal text, this book produces an intimate depiction of alienation and loneliness (but not despair). Despite the superficial camaraderie and the group activities imposed by military life, both the photographer and his fellow recruits are perpetually isolated from one another. They have all been cast adrift in a bleak psychological no-man’s land for their year of military service.

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Using the snapshot aesthetic (imposed in part due to the Smena) the resulting book is a visual narrative of his year long ordeal of self-isolation that reflects the chaos and emotional turmoil of his own sudden powerlessness. Other uniformed figures appear in his photographs but they remain anonymous. Although they are presumably fellow recruits like him (with their own insecurities and anxieties) they remain distant, serving to enhance the mood of  loneliness that pervades the book. In spite of the scenes of barrack life, the distance between the photographer and those around him is never quite bridged. They are all living lives of quiet desperation, hidden behind the masks of their uniforms and the macho bravado expected of them.

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These remote, distant figures inhabit the desolate spaces of military architecture or a bleak, featureless tundra where nature itself mirrors the sense of isolation felt by Aksakov. His repeated photographs of stunted nature can be read as a metaphor for his true position, allowing us to glimpse behind the outward conformity imposed by military discipline. Like the landscape, the soldier/photographer has been reduced by the state to an anonymous, featureless resource it has decided to consume in the name of national greatness. Defined by his lowly status in this institutional machine, photography becomes a way of escaping the pressures inflicted upon Aksakov during this enforced stay in purgatory (he describes the camera as his friend). Like the book itself (a wonderfully designed publication by Akina Books) these images reassert his individuality, showing that in spite of the best efforts of the military machine to create standardised, obedient soldiers out of those who fall into their clutches, they have failed. While we may outwardly conform and modify our behaviour according to what is expected of us in a given situation, it is never a true guide to inner character. To borrow a term from Foucault, where there is power, there is resistance (however small).

Gross-Japan (Dai Nippon) – Younosuke Natori

As the world edged towards war in the later part of the 1930s, new found alliances were formed between various ambitious powers that had designs on reshaping the world and the Axis countries set about propagandising the virtues of their new found friends. Japan, ruled by a military clique since the early 1930s with a figurehead emperor providing popular legitimacy, decided it wanted part of the action and had already invaded Manchuria during this period (after grabbing Korea earlier in the century) and staked its claims in Asia. For European fascist regimes it was important that propaganda differentiated their new Asian ally (racially, culturally and historically) from other societies in the region, demonstrated that Japan shared certain core values that were compatible with fascism, and generally presented them in a favourable light in the face of outside criticism.

First published in 1937 (this is the 2nd paperback edition missing the dust jacket) Gross-Japan (Greater Japan) is a photobook in the standard country survey style, that uses the time honoured formula to create a picturesque vision of  an exotic land for a distant audience. Here, ancient traditions coexist with the modern world, while historical buildings and unchanging scenes of Arcadian tranquility provide contrast for the progressive new developments and images of industrial might that will lead to a brighter future. Military prowess and images of a disciplined, ordered society show strength of purpose and convery a sense of national destiny that particularly resonated during this time. Looked at from this perspective, this book is quite unremarkable from a wide range of  similar 1930s propaganda publications but what is particularly interesting, from my point of view, is the author, Yônosuke Natori.

Although early Japanese documentary photographers, such as Ken Domon and Ihei Kimura are well known, Natori’s legacy has gone largely unremarked (at least outside Japan). Born in 1910, Natori left for Germany in 1928 where he studied in Munich before starting work as a jobbing photojournalist in 1931. Returning to Japan in 1933 he founded the group Nippon Kobo which is credited with influencing the development of Japanese documentary practice. Thanks to Natori’s exposure to photographic developments in Germany, where he would have undoubtedly become aware of the New Vision techniques that were then in vogue, as well as his adoption of the small format Leica camera, Natori can be regarded as a bridge between East and West, bringing the latest European developments to a Japanese photographic audience who in turn adapted them to their own particular cultural viewpoints.  As well as working with the German Ullstein press machine, Natori was the first Asian photographer to have his work appear in Life magazine (his work appeared in two issues of Life in 1937; an extensive spread on Vermont appeared on 19 July followed by pictures of the Japanese invasion of China on 20 December) before helping establish the propaganda magazine Nippon, also designed for a foreign audience, in 1934

Natori’s use of the Leica and the influence of the new vision style is evident in a number of the images within the book; the neat, ordered lines of prams and rickshaws he depicts upon the streets, Natori’s view through the wheels of the rickshaw in the financial area of Tokyo and the images of massed ranks of military recruits and schoolchildren practicing their martial skills stand out as particularly good examples of the new vision aesthetic applied to Japanese subject matter. These images introduce a dynamic tone the book which, as well as preventing it from becoming another coffee table tome, serves to move the narrative forward as well as informing the viewer that Imperial Japan is on the march.

Like other photographic surveys of distant lands, where the viewer is presented with a vision of the exotic-picturesque designed to emphasise the cultural and national specificity of the country in question, Natori’s book is filled with images that could have come straight out of a 1930s tourist brochure. However, like Nippon magazine, Gross-Japan was clearly designed as a piece of propaganda to disseminate Japanese cultural and national achievements to a foreign audience, in this case Nazi Germany. Undoubtedly assisted by the close contacts Natori had with the German press and his association with Japanese officialdom (the ambassador has written the forward to the book) this book was carefully tailored to present a vision of Japan that would appeal to a heavily politicised audience gearing up for war.

In the specific context and time it appeared, Gross-Japan had a specific political function to serve; it was important that the book not over emphasise the differences between the two countries. The German viewer had to be able to admire the traditional ceremonial and ritual aspects of Japanese culture whilst also being able to appreciate and identify with the disciplined social structure and values that are also presented as an integral part of Imperial Japan. In this way the two aspects are interlinked; present day strength is presented as a function of a long and deep historical tradition, which in turn serves to bolster expansionist claims over other countries and peoples. Concepts of social unity, discipline, a strong work ethic, industrial development, the veneration of tradition in the face of outside forces and a sense of national destiny would have struck a chord with the German viewer of the time.

Jugoslavija

Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists, was an entity born initially from the collapse of the old Central and Eastern European empires after World War 1. A loose confederation of a number of different ethnic and religious groups united under a monarchy during the inter-war period, Yugoslavia was invaded by the Germans, Italians and Hungarians in 1941. A violent war of resistance against the Axis invaders ensued with the communist Partisans under Tito, allied with the royalist (mainly Serb) Chetniks under Mihajlovic, in opposition to them (the Chetniks later became more worried about the communist threat and switched sides). The Axis powers dismembered Yugoslavia using the tried and tested technique of divide-and-rule while Croatia became an independent fascist state ruled by the notorious Ustase. As can be imagined this created yet another layer of deep bitterness to a region which has long been riven by ethnic tensions. Tito’s Partisans emerged victorious at the end of the war and he set about establishing a socialist government in Yugoslavia which, if it was to stay in power, entailed sweeping all the various national and ethnic divisions under the carpet.

Simply titled Jugoslavija, this book is a small undated red hard-covered publication with photographs credited to Foto Borba and Foto Putnik from Belgrade. Although no date is present, a previous owner has written 1947 in an inscription and the book has the feel and look of a publication produced around that time. The French language captions accompanying the photographs is the only text present (apart from a cyrillic proclamation.)  Design wise, this book is quite average with a straightforward layout consisting of a single photo per page. The only aspect that makes it stand out from the crowd is the metal Yugoslav state seal stuck on the front cover (it does make a nasty dent on the other books when you put it in the shelf though).

The narrative structure of the book is divided into three sections; the war, reconstruction and the paradise on earth that has been created (or, as the book puts it, ‘the land of sun and health’). A single unifying theme runs through the book; everything is designed to lend credibility to the official myth that everybody in Yugoslavia was united against the Germans and supported the Partisans. Alternative points of view or the fact that there were a number of different groups who strongly opposed Tito’s Partisans have no place in this official, and heavily simplified, version of history.

Myth making is integral to the creation and sustainability of nation-states. In effect history is written in such a way as to create a consensus that legitimates the core political ideology of the state in question. This in turn creates the perception that the current status quo is merely an inevitable, natural progression from these so-called historical facts. Mythical history, or the official version of it, creates the rules within which the political game is played within every country. Nation building (the formation and creation of a stable national identity in which certain values are regarded as being a natural and inevitable part of everyday life) lies at the heart of every artificial political entity we know as a ‘state’ or country and, without it, the long term viability of a state/country is impossible. Most of the people living in a country actually have to believe in (or at least go along with) the ideals and values that are part and parcel of the historical myth that in turn makes them different from all the other countries and peoples in the world. Yugoslavia failed to create this stable, unified national consensus. Instead, the various wounds and grievances were allowed fester beneath a facade of outward compliance to the state which erupted into violence once the control of the Yugoslav state collapsed in the early 1990s.

The first section depicting the war years is relatively straightforward; the barbarity of German soldiers burning villages and executing people are contrasted with the discipline and order of the partisans. A number of images show the partisans marching in step and holding political meetings which are designed to show that Tito’s group is the only genuine representatives of the Yugoslav people. The tempo increases in the final series of images within this section; Partisan forces massing for an attack, artillery blasting away, the smoking remains of a battle and finally the victorious Partisan tanks entering a town, all followed by images of celebratory crowds greeting their liberators are designed to construct a historical narrative. All these images are designed to reinforce the message that the Partisans alone defeated the Germans and therefore they are the only legitimate government.

Following on from the victory the book now shows us the reconstruction effort. Bridge building is an easy metaphor for people to grasp and it appears at the beginning of this section, followed by the inevitable images of people carting wheelbarrows, building houses, harvesting crops and happily working to repair the damage done by the war. Again, the message of these photos is crystal clear; the entire country has been united under Tito’s guidance and is working collectively to produce a new and better society for the future. The images of the toiling workers reinforce the idea that collective self-sacrifice in the name of a greater good will assuredly produce a brighter utopian future for a happy and content Yugoslavia.

The last section, ‘the land of sun and health’, is a succession of picturesque images of snow-capped mountains and lakes, old and modern townscapes as well as lots of women in traditional costumes.  Most of the various entities that made up the former Yugoslavia are represented in these images, which serves to create an illusion of national unity,while allowing a safe display of national and ethnic difference.  The celebration of different ethnic identities through traditional costumes and customs are permissible as long as they remain safely consigned to a backward past and do not threaten the Yugoslav ideal. Many of the captions accompanying the landscape images also refer to some battle or event that is a part of the new Yugoslav myth, making the new government appear as the inevitable outcome of what has gone before as well as linking it to the very land itself.

The photographs in this book are in themselves relatively mundane and the design is fairly pedestrian, but that’s not the point. The real purpose of the book is to convince the reader that what they are seeing is the truth (after all, the camera never lies) and photobooks like this are very effective at doing just that.

With Freedom in Their Eyes; A photo-essay of Angola – Robert Kramer & Laurie Gitlin

An early victim of European expansion, Angola was ruled by Portugal for over 300 years (between the 1650s until the mid 1970s) which saw ever increasing exploitation of its natural resources and labour as the centuries passed and Portugal’s power in the world declined. Portuguese politics in the twentieth century was defined (and still is) by the Salazar dictatorship, which lasted for 40 years between 1928 and 1968. In order to bankroll his authoritarian and stagnating state, Salazar was heavily dependent on the revenue offered by the colonies which Portugal hung on to like grim death at a time when most of Africa had already gained independence. Inspired by the anti-colonial movements throughout Africa, Angola soon produced its own underground rebel group, the MPLA, which began to fight for an end to Portuguese rule. In the paranoia of a polarised Cold War world as Portugal was a member of NATO it meant that the MPLA naturally looked towards the Communist camp for support, which was forthcoming.

After the demise of Salazar in 1968, his protege Caetano took over and fully intended to keep the authoritarian show on the road. However the times-were-a-changing and the combination of a stagnating economy, rising oil prices after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, social unrest, the unpopular colonial wars and the disgruntled old-guard within the Salazar regime who felt they had been hard-done by the new guy, led to a military coup in 1974. General Spinola tried to install himself as the saviour of Portugal but his action had the unintended effect of lighting the fuse on decades of resentment;  his regime was swept away by mass demonstrations and the army fragmented in what became known as the Carnation Revolution. In the midst of this chaos in Portugal, the MPLA under Agostinho Neto seized their chance and declared independence in Angola. However this success was short lived as the new independent Angola was immediately beset by problems; as well as a legacy of 300 years of colonial rule which had kept the economy and society deliberately underdeveloped, Apartheid South Africa invaded and there was a civil war  between the MPLA and a rival group UNITA (aided by the US and South Africa) which lasted for decades and caused the death of millions through conflict, disease and starvation.

Known primarily as a filmmaker, Robert Kramer was a product of 1960s anti-Vietnam War radicalism in the US who, unlike many of his contemporaries that drifted back into the fold come the 70s, continued to explore anti-capitalist themes throughout his career.  His earliest and most influential work is the film Ice (1969), an early mock-umentary about an armed insurrection in the US, was met with criticism from his fellow radical brethren who were disturbed by his questioning of the nature of activism as well his depiction of the fragmentary tendencies and internal tensions that are inherent within all such groups. In the context of Portugal and Angola, his 1977 film, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, about the aftermath of the 1974 Carnation Revolution can be directly linked with this publication.  Whereas Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal attempts to explore the themes of the harnessing of mass-political power and the residual influence of business/financial/military elites who attempt to reassert their influence in a post-revolutionary society, With Freedom in their Eyes is a straightforward record of the emergence of a newly independent Angola. (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal can be found on Youtube.)

With Freedom in the Eyes is a small book of black and white images, mostly credited to Kramer, accompanied by a text written by Laurie Gitlin. Published in 1976 by the People’s Press in California, this book seeks to document and explain the recent war against the Portuguese. Kramer’s black and white photographs within the book fall into two categories; images of the MPLA guerrillas bristling with crude weaponry and portrayals of newly-free Angolan society getting back to work now that Portuguese have gone. Of the actual fighting itself, we see nothing and in fairness, Kramer was not a photojournalist so he wasn’t going to produce dramatic action photos. Through his images Kramer attempts to portray a society coming to terms with the new found situation in which it finds itself; the presence of armed men, even though they are presented as representatives of the people, serve to disrupt the idealised portrayal of a disciplined and unified society. Here we have a desperately poor people, impoverished materially and culturally for centuries by the Portuguese, trying to keep going. The images are pure documentary record and for the most part the presentation is kept simple. (A half-hearted attempt at graphic design is made with the presence of some black-printed pages accompanied by quotes from Angolan rebel leaders and an round image of a crowd with crosshairs over it – but that’s it.)

Gitlin’s text is simplistic, full of Marxist cliché about the struggle against imperialism and optimistic assertions about the future of an independent socialist Angola which were not to come to pass. Unlike Kramer’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, this book is a very straightforward narrative of the triumph of the rebel struggle for independence; it has none of the complexity or nuances that appear in the movie (in which some of Kramer’s Angolan pictures appear) that attempts to explore the inevitable tensions and conflict that occur in a vacuum once political power is up for grabs. Kramer’s subjectivity in the movie, in which he explicitly asserts that what he is showing are fragmentary snapshots and scenes from an ongoing process, is not present in the book. Instead we have an over- simplified and over-optimistic narrative about the emergence of a free Angola.

Perhaps Kramer the filmmaker was more concerned with the movie in production and let the book slide, or were the photographs merely a sweetener used in order to get access in Angola? He obviously had the talent and the skill to produce complex and layered films but this book just doesn’t compare at all.  Whatever the reason, Kramer obviously relinquished control over his photographs which were then used to illustrate a rather mediocre book. It’s a real shame to imagine what kind of a book he could have made if the images had been presented thoughtfully and the text had been more incisive.

North of the Danube – Erskine Caldwell & Margaret Bourke-White

This publication was the second collaborative book between Caldwell and Bourke White who had previously produced You Have Seen Their Faces in 1937.  Published in 1939, North of the Danube attempts to recreate the winning formula of Caldwell’s text accompanied by Bourke White’s photographs to produce a documentary narrative of a current event or issue of concern which attempts to explain to the distant reader/viewer the situation in question. (Some of the images were published in the 30 May, 1938 issue of Life Magazine alongside those of John Phillips.)

Following the annexation of Austria within Hitler’s murderous realm, Czechoslovakia was next to fall. Pro-Nazi groups within the ethnic German population were vocal in claims about suffering at the hands of the Czechs which provided a pretext to justify the annexation of certain border regions (the Sudatenland)  in 1938.  Anxious to avoid confrontation with Germany, the main Western European powers compromised with Hitler and cobbled together an agreement at Munich which allowed the Germans a free hand with the areas they claimed. The following spring saw much of what has now become the Czech Republic being fully seized by Germany to become the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia within the Third Reich which lasted until 1945. This is the context within which this book was produced for a primarily American audience.

The book itself can be regarded as a straightforward travelogue; the text consists of a series of separate chapters in which Caldwell describes his experiences and what they saw during their travels in these areas. These take the form of individual stand-alone chapters which when read together,  produce an overall sense of the tension and turmoil bubbling just beneath the surface. Certainly one of the most effective passages, in my opinion, is when Caldwell recounts how a pro-Nazi German couple attacked a fellow train passenger because they suspect she is Jewish. However, in spite of occasional illuminating gems such as this, there is little depth to the text. There is no deeper analysis about the historical context and no serious attempt is made to explain the complexities of the area that were bound up with the existing economic and social structures that produced tensions between the Czech, Slovak and Hungarian populations and ethnic groups.

This is to be expected really; unlike their work in the American South, neither Caldwell nor Bourke-White had any particular knowledge about this geographical region and this is compounded by having to explain the complexities to an audience who is equally ignorant.  Certainly in comparison to You Have Seen Their Faces, this book does not have the emotional resonance or depth of understanding that their first collaborative publication had. Looking at how this book was described by the publisher, this lack of in-depth knowledge is explained away by explicitly positioning Caldwell as an ‘observer’ and stating that this book is neither a piece of reportage nor a political commentary. This would indicate to me that even at the time of publication the limitations of the book were realised.

Turning to Bourke-White’s images, which are positioned as a ‘supplement’ to Caldwell’s text and appear between various chapters on specific regions and cities they visited, they too, in my opinion, suffer from a lack of engagement with the subject. They can be briefly categorised into three broad groups; Arcadian pastoral scenes peopled by peasants whose mode of dress and work appears to be something out of the middle-ages; quaint, picturesque cities whose olde-worlde foreignness is emphasised for an American audience, and the brooding Nazi presence whose appearance threatens to disrupt and destroy this apparently unchanged way of life.  Although the Nazis are ever-present in the background, Bourke-White does not train her camera upon them; a couple of images appear within the book but her focus is primarily upon a sympathetic portrayal of rural harmony epitomised by traditional agrarian society. Similarly, some industrial images are present but they are downplayed in favour of photographs of agriculture.

Unlike You Have Seen Their Faces, there is no serious attempt to represent poverty or the harshness of rural life and the simmering tensions between the peasant and the landlord; this economic system, unlike the American South, is not subject to any serious scrutiny.  Hints are provided that all is not quite so harmonious as it appears, but clearly the priority of both Caldwell and Bourke-White was to focus on the Nazi threat rather than attempt any serious engagement with the region.

The manner in which Bourke White represents the peasants of the area in many ways reflects popular American preconceptions of European ‘mother’ countries from which early immigrants came from in the nineteenth century. Time and distance transforms a backward, impoverished, rural fight for survival into a rose-tinted idealised space where traditional values and morals, lost thanks to the frantic pace of modern urban life, have somehow been preserved.  In this context, the viewer is made perfectly aware that the omnipresent threat of Nazi violence will irrevocably destroy this ancient traditional culture rooted in the past. The peasants in Bourke White’s photographs may be poor but they’re happy.

In contrast, the few photographs of ethnic Germans are immediately Nazi in appearance; crowds with arms raised in salute and serious looking men glaring at the camera dressed in quasi-military attire. By comparison with the peasant who is represented as an inextricable part of the soil, Bourke White represents the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia as a violent force who are bent on racial conquest. Throughout this book, Caldwell’s text and Bourke White’s images combine to produce a straightforward duality between black and white; the good Czechs versus the bad Nazis. Simplicity in this case is essential for a distant audience.

Caldwell and Bourke White’s stance in this book is quite clear; the Nazis are a menacing force who threaten to destroy an traditional culture and a small nation who Americans should sympathise with and protect to a certain degree. However, North of the Danube has the feel of an instant book hurriedly put together by a successful author and a celebrity photographer in order to capitalise on hot news. Caldwell and Bourke-White spent five months in Czechoslovakia, from the end of March to August 1938, at the same time as the crisis was reaching boiling point so it was topical. On a personal note, Bourke White complained of Caldwell’s numerous temper-tantrums throughout the time which caused her some difficulties in making photos. In my opinion, this lack of serious engagement with the subject matter comes through in both the text and images.