Photo series about the Massgames in Pyongyang, North Korea – the biggest show in the world
Series of 10 photos published at the gallery Lumas
More motifs on my website Massgames Pictures
25. Internationalen Poster Biennale in Warschau 2016Ausgestellt auf der
Mode-Serie mit meinen Fotos.
Whitewall, dem Labor von Lumas.Interview mit
The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.
On Further Developing Mass Gymnastics.
General Kim Jong-il, April 1987
In June 1811, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who later became known as the “gymnastics father”, opened the first “gymnastics ground” on the Hasenheide in Berlin. Everyone should be able to gather here and strengthen publicly with physical exercises. But the authorities looked suspiciously at the rapidly growing gymnastics movement, for Jahn was known as a radical nationalist who wanted to abolish small stateism and dreamed of civil rights, equality and a “Greater Germany” with a newly to be built capital “Teutonia” in Thuringia. So it is not surprising that the gymnasts were banned again in 1820 and Jahn was arrested several times in the following period. It was not until 1842 that William IV of Prussia lifted the “Turnbann” after Jahn had renounced his most radical political ideas. After this de-ideologization, however, the movement gained enormous popularity. The first highlight is the Leipzig Gymnastics Festival of 1863 with over 20,000 participants.
When the idea of public mass gymnastics was rediscovered by various socialist states after the Second World War, a new political charge – apparently inevitable – followed, but from another direction. The synchronicity of movements, already introduced by Jahn, was now driven to its peak, since system faith and staging suddenly fit together perfectly. North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong Il formulated this idea in an essay on “mass gymnastics” as follows: “Conscious that the slightest mistake in their actions can disturb the entire performance, the school children make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective. The individual only functions as part of the collective, and the collective is only perfect if each individual is. The massgames serve as a way to “fully developed communist people” (Kim Jong Il, ibid.). Equipped with this ideological framework, the North Korean Mass Games eclipse everything that has ever been performed in the Eastern Bloc and put the just described into such a gigantic and spectacular show – and I really wanted to photograph it again.
(That’s what happens at airports on the way to Pyongyang – and on the way to Pyongyang your have to pass through many airports.)
Through my pictures book about the Massgames I got in contact with Galerie Lumas, which was interested in including a series of my photos in its portfolio. Since I only had a small amateur camera with me for my first series, the resolution of the photos was not enough for the large formats that Lumas wanted. With this offer behind me, I decided to take a second series. However, if I flew to Pyongyang again especially for the Massgames, I didn’t want to sit again as a tourist on any place, but wanted to enter with official permission and get as far as possible to the playing field. This time I also wanted to break in with decent equipment. Simple tourists are advised not to take any focal lengths over 200 mm, as you can see above, I had bigger plans. I was less interested in the spectacular Gursky totals, my approach was to pick the individual participant out of the masses, to find the “man in the masses”, to pull him out of the collective – and I had to get as close as possible to the participants. By being close to the playing field or extremely long focal lengths, preferably both.
The hurdle of the photo permission turned out to be higher than expected. If I want to take photos or shoot in Berlin, there is a professionally managed location office where I can ask for my desired location and negotiate the price. Of course, there is no such thing in Pyongyang. So I tried all possible other ways, wrote the German Embassy in Pyongyang, the Goethe Institute, which was still operating a reading room there at the time, tried it through all kinds of tour operators – unsuccessfully. For almost a year I had to listen to myself that I couldn’t do that at all. But apparently my efforts were registered: a Korean employee of the German Embassy researched how I had come to the country for the first time and turned to just that travel agency: Koryo Tours, what a funny guy he is who rouses everyone here in Pyongyang with his photo permission. Nick Bonner from Koryo Tours turned to me and with his help things slowly started to move. At the end of the summer I finally got another message from Nick: a door could open for me in far away Pyongyang. The best thing would be to get on a plane and just try. I didn’t want to miss this moment, took all my courage, plundered my bank account and travelled to “hermit kingdom” twice in September and October 2009. Of course, there was no problem at all in Pyongyang, but at least I took my equipment through customs. But my great guide worked hard for me and after further difficult negotiations, a few days later I was actually right at the front of the field at the edge of the world’s biggest show – closer than any other photographer in front of me.
From the results I cut together a small photo film and selected a song according to a recommendation of the former “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il: “mass gymnastic music should be played vigorously and solemnly”.
Maybe this is the last big work on this gigantic show. The last Massgames took place in August 2013. No one knows if they will ever be performed again.