The Photos Matjaž Tančič Could (and Couldn’t) Take in North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un waves to North Korean officers during the launch of four ballistic missiles. STR/AFP/KCNA via KNS/Getty Images

Have you heard the one about the Slovenian photographer and the stuffed ostrich in North Korea? Sounds like the start of a weird joke (as with most things involving North Korea…and stuffed ostriches), particularly when a grim sideshow story is fresh in the news about the assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s brother by two girls who claimed they thought it was a candid camera prank. You can’t make this sort of thing up. But the one about the Slovenian and the ostriches? The true story of one of the world’s premiere young photographers, Matjaž Tančič, and his adventure with a new, old art form, in what is perhaps the world’s least-accessible country.

Tančič is a force of nature. At a tender age (born in 1982), he already has featured in 68 group, and 28 solo exhibitions, and he is in demand all over the world. Born in Slovenia, residing for many years in China (where he first went for work), he’ll be off to Greece to photograph refugees, then for a fashion shoot in Italy, then back to China to take a portrait of Ai Weiwei. In 2013, aged 31, he won the Sony World Photography Organization competition in the 3D category, which is how I’ve wound up this week wrestling with my four-year-old for control of a plastic yellow box that looks like crazy person goggles, so we can stare at a North Korean noodle maker.

The review book that just arrived in the mail, if you can call it a book, gives me flashbacks to my youth, playing with a View-Master slide viewer, a bright red plastic box that you looked into and clicked a button to cycle through basic three-dimensional photos (I had the animal set). The box contains a yellow viewer box, five postcards that are printed to be three-dimensional without needing a viewer, and a stack of images to slip into the viewer, which feeds a slightly different image into each eye, tricking the brain into thinking that the 2D image is actually 3D. It is a youthful joy to play with something that my daughters take such delight in.

Of course, three-dimensional photography is not a new technology, as my old View-Master memories verify. 3D photos require two images: one for the left eye and one for the right. As Tančič explains, “In theory, the distance between two cameras is 6.5 cm. This is the average distance between human eyes. You can shoot with one camera, even an iPhone, then you move the camera and shoot again. But in theory it’s really simple, in reality it’s way more complicated, because you have to trick the human brain, which is a complex machine.” There’s a good deal of math involved, depending on what you are shooting, you need to recalculate the distance between the shots. If you take two separate shots with the same camera it is called the “cha-cha technique,” as in “one, two, cha-cha-cha.” How does this work with moving subjects, as in one of the shots from North Korea, in which a Tae Kwon Do specialist was shot in mid-air?

RI GYONG SUN, 45, Maintaining Ancient History Section, Folk Park Pyongyang, 2014. Courtesy Matjaž Tančič

“When it comes to moving subjects, you have two cameras on a special rig to trigger them at the same time, with a remote control. The jumping shot was tough, because we used flash and there was a lot of repeated jumping to get it right.” There is also a lot of work in postproduction, as Tančič’s 3D mentor, photographer Peter Gedei explains, “to get the two photos to be correctly united and prepared for a particular way of looking at them, either on a 3D TV or with special colored glasses.”

This makes 3D photography, which feels very new, more similar as an art form to the origins of photography than today’s quick snaps. For 19th century photographic techniques, beginning with daguerreotypes in 1839, the subject matter had to remain still for a very long time, keeping immobile for several minutes, otherwise the photograph would blur. 3D photograph is only recently available in digital technology with any ease of use (there are some 3D digital cameras out there, which contain two lenses), but there is not yet a 3D version of Instagram, so it remains largely an analog art form. And as Peter Gedei notes, “3D cameras are generally only lower quality compact cameras and they are not suitable for any serious work.” This means that it remains in the category of art, with carefully-posed and maintained tableaux vivants, and professional equipment needed to shoot, finish in post-production, and even view the work. This is refreshing, and encourages contemplation of the image and the photographic print as an artwork, whereas digital-only photographs we tend to think of as quick “snaps,” to be shuffled through rapidly and of no collectible value, since they exist only in the ether of the Internet of a memory card.

3D is clearly a trend, most obviously with film and television. It is a step less immersive than Virtual Reality (which has a 360-degree component, allowing you to turn your head and still be “within” the image). But beyond the aesthetic interest in the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional print, there is a lot more going on in the process of examining three-dimensional photographs, which are distinctly an art form, having never caught on for the snapshot, Insta-public.

The experience of 3D photography is likewise distinct from our mass binging on images, especially online. There’s the childlike buzz of “playing” with the goggles and the prints themselves. This is a much more satisfying experience than the postcards printed in a textured, double-exposed manner to allow for 3D viewing without the goggles. Then the very act of having to look at the pictures through a viewer means two things: You concentrate on the image, distractions and periphery blocked out, creating a much more immersive feeling; but you also want to spend more time contemplating and examining the image, because of the (admittedly tiny) effort of loading the print and peering through the goggles.

The average person spends three seconds or less looking at photographs if they are digital, i.e. flipping through them. It’s three to five seconds for print photographs, in an album or a stack. By contrast, one study showed that people spent 32.5 seconds on average looking at each artwork in a museum. The mechanics and isolation of examining photographs through the goggles encourages more museum-like focus on photos. It’s not only down to time spent, but it’s the quality of that time. We admire the depth, which encourages the eye to linger and run over all details, as well as to try to “read” them, infer stories, glean information, not mere passive aesthetic judgment. This lines up engaging with a 3D photograph alongside engaging with a painting, and a world away from the artless quaffing of vast quantities of pixel-only imagery.

KIM GI SUN, 60, KITC Cameraman, Duck BBQ Restaurant, 2014. Courtesy Matjaž Tančič

Tančič began taking 3D photographs when working for the weekly Slovenian liberal magazine, Mladina. His mentor, Peter Gedei, was working there, too. One day Gedei was looking at some 3D images he had taken of caves, a subject he has been shooting in 3D for 25 years. He describes the underground environment as “the ultimate challenge…there is always darkness, tough conditions,” and that was part of the appeal, as he was never drawn to “external” 3D photography. Tančič was blown away. But the photos were of caves alone or spelunkers in hardhats, and Tančič wondered what it would be like to shoot more traditional portraits with this new technology. They began to collaborate, including a 3D shoot for Playboy and an album for the Slovene rock band, Siddhartha. The technique is challenging and difficult to explain to non-photographers. As Gedei stays, “3D is not represented by the style or theme of photography, but is a highly technical component, which must be carried out correctly. If it is not, we are doing it a disservice.”

Tančič’s new book does 3D photography a service, one that may be lost on my four-year-old, who has wrested it from my hands. Entitled 3DPRK (as in People’s Republic of Korea) and published by the Beijing firm Koryo Studio, it offers an unusual, rare view behind the mad nuclear headlines and at real people in North Korea. While the faces of those portrayed appear remarkably poker-faced, as with any good portrait photographer, Tančič implies a story, a personality, a three-dimensionality to the people in his pictures, beyond the virtual reality of the image. I could write a novel around the boy and girl students at the Kim Jong Suk Middle School, posed in uniform standing before a line of taxidermy exotic animals facing away from us, with an ostrich’s rear-end full-frontal.

But it was a bit of a frustrating exercise for Tančič, chaperoned as he was by a pair of official, state-assigned guides. “It was a country where I saw many amazing photos I could not take,” he says. “It’s sometimes sensitive to take photos, even though I had good relationship with my guides. I had six cameras with me and they didn’t check a single photo. They went out of their comfort zone many times for me, so I tried not to make their lives miserable. If I saw something interesting but potentially problematic, I decided not to ask. Once I was on a walk with one guide, and he was really uncomfortable, because it was not a touristy place, just locals. There was a diver on a boat in a vintage orange rubber diving suit, with a hose connecting to the boat for oxygen. It was so beautiful, but I knew the guide was already nervous and didn’t want me to be there. Once I saw a huge pig on a third floor balcony, standing on his hind legs and leaning on the balustrade. In the West it’s nothing problematic, but there they were worried it would show them as underdeveloped, so I didn’t push it.”

But what Tančič did manage to take provides an inviting glimpse of the closest planet Earth has to a “forbidden zone.” While there are stern-faced soldiers, there is also a “fun fair controller” (who looks like she’s not up for any fun at all), a brewmaster (much more fun), and a brightly-smiling worker in a noodle factory. “These workers all double as farmers. They harvest the crops and then process them in the factory, all the same people.” A good portrait, it is said, should reveal a hidden truth about the sitter that the sitter would prefer remained hidden. Perhaps in this case the same might be said that this series of portraits can reveal a hidden truth about the nation itself that the nation would prefer remained hidden.

This is the latest in Observer Arts’ new series Secrets and Symbols, by author and art historian Noah Charney. 

The Photos Matjaž Tančič Could (and Couldn’t) Take in North Korea