Growing up in Hong Kong, award-winning photographer Ted Lau was always curious about North Korea after seeing daily headlines about missile tests and nuclear weapons. It was after discovering Andreas Gursky's work in North Korea that he decided he had to visit the place to document it for himself.
In 2019, an opportunity arose, and he embarked on an exploratory journey that took him to the capital city of Pyongyang, and to the countryside. In his resulting series, In Work Will Set You Free, Lau gives us a "behind the curtain" peek at this secretive, totalitarian country to find out what everyday life is like for the people there. Unable to leave their country, or even travel within it, they live and work in a carefully curated bubble – something Lau hoped to penetrate with his camera.
Like many curious creatives before him, he knew it would prove challenging. Throughout his travels, he was always accompanied by two polite minders/tour guides who controlled where he went and what he was allowed to photograph.
Now a new book of the same title, published by Daylight Books this month, reveals what he did manage to uncover with texts including an introduction by Lau, a foreword by Yu-Ting Cheng, a fine artist based in Taipei, Taiwan who accompanied Lau on his trip, and Zahra Amiruddin, an independent writer, photographer and educator based in Bombay, who provides a running colour commentary about North Korea's complex history, the state of the country today, and the people and places Lau encountered during his visit.
The book takes us on a journey, opening with photographs of the surreal capital city of Pyongyang, parts of which look like movie sets frozen in the 1950s. In fact, when you look closely at Lau's images you'll see some boast futuristic facades and Jetsons-like skyscrapers. It's quite the contrast and makes you wonder if you're indeed looking at a real city. The elaborate Pyongyang Subway, for example, was inspired by those in Soviet Moscow and rendered in sky blues and baby pinks, giving a sense of utopia for local residents.
We then see photographs of synchronised gymnastics from an annual event that was introduced in 2002 but was going to be cancelled after its re-opening in 2018. The official reason given was that the performances didn't meet Kim Jong-un's stringent standards. Thankfully for Lau, Jong-un had a change of heart and the games were up and running and Lau made some stunning pictures of the talented young performers.
Elsewhere, we're introduced to Pyongyang's two amusement parks where people go to unwind after a hard day's work. This is one of the few places where foreigners can mingle with local residents and where you'll also see an uninhibited side to them, as they let go of their usually disciplined body language to shriek, laugh and rejoice.
In other images, we see an art class where the young students are meticulously copying sculptures with a Western aesthetic that is popular in their country. And we see posters of former leaders Kim II-sung and Kim Jong-il all over the capital city and country, consistently depicted as benevolent fathers rather than austere leaders.
During their trip, Cheng and Lau rarely got the chance to engage with the Korean people except for their minders and tour guides. In her foreword, Cheng recalls how after visiting the International Friendship Museum in the North Pyongan Province, Lau asked their guide if they could stop to check out a pavilion by the river. He hesitated at first but then agreed to set them free to explore. They found a few middle-aged men relaxing on a bench who waved and said hello to them. One of the men exclaimed "Our Country is Beautiful!" and they all laughed together. Cheng concludes, "North Korea is a unique place with a great people that we outsiders will never be able to see and comprehend fully. But seeing the beautiful moments that Ted captured will give you a glimpse into what it is like in this often-misunderstood country."
"What I offer you here is my perspective of North Korea," says Lau of his series. "It is a beautiful land and a land with a beautiful people… Yes, it is being held back by its political system and nuclear ambitions, but its people are not responsible for that. So, let's turn our eyes from politics… I hope this glimpse into the lives of North Korea's citizens will open your mind to this country and show you that it is not just about what you see in the news."