One of the ongoing challenges of working alongside North Korea is the lack of transparency, as well as what former President Jimmy Carter has defined as a “very serious crisis” inside its borders. And with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 North Korean refugees in China alone, intrepid journalists are often needed to chronicle their stories and interpret their hidden world with an individual, powerful vision.
Katharina Hesse is a Beijing-based German photographer whose transcendent images have graced the pages of Newsweek, TIME Asia, and Der Spiegel, one of Europe’s leading publications. There’s nothing shy about Hesse’s photographs, as they rarely appear posed. Their raw honesty tells a tale of stark, but often beautiful realities.
When asked why China and Asia are the focus of her photographic work, Hesse replied, “In China nowadays everything changes, and people’s mentalities are changing as well, which I find fascinating.” Hesse’s continuing fascination with China – as well as Asia in general — has taken her from Bangkok to Shenyang in northeast China, where she has photographed North Korean refugees for TIME Asia. As she explained, “I’m German and I grew up in a divided country. And to me, well, I’ve seen all this before, when I grew up.”
AsianTalks: You’ve been in China for almost 20 years. Where have you been, and what brought you to China?
Katharina: I came here as a graduate student in ’93, from Paris, France, just to do some research at Beijing University. After one year I realized that that was definitely not enough. I realized how little I really knew about China even as a graduate student.
It’s very strange being in China for so many years because suddenly you realize at the end of your studies you know so little about China. And then I had this opportunity at Newsweek to travel around with one of the big contract photographers, and I became his assistant and translator. I realized photography was a great means to see much closer, at least much closer than any academic paper. Because suddenly you’re standing in reality.
AsianTalks: You’ve taken photographs of North Korean refugees on assignment. What was that like for you?
Katharina: About six or seven years ago I received an assignment from TIME Asia. I was just told on the phone “Please fly to Shenyang, and then you’ll get some more information.” So I had no idea what was ahead.
When I arrived I was instructed just to go to a place at the North Korean border, and that’s how I met a North Korean refugee for the first time in my life. That was very, very moving.
There was one young boy, I still remember, we invited him to a restaurant, and bought him some milk. But he kept staring at the glass of milk, because he had no idea what that was.
I also have a picture of an activist — a woman –who secretly goes back and forth between China and North Korea, which is very dangerous.
After that trip I realized this is such an important story. I admire these people who sacrifice so much of their own lives, just to help others. But what can be frustrating is how little interest there is sometimes in media unless something happens with the leadership in North Korea. I still think there’s too little focus on refugees.
AsianTalks: And how safe is it for you to go to these areas as an eyewitness and photojournalist?
Katharina: You have to be really careful. These trips are prepared beforehand, to make sure you don’t get anyone in danger, or trouble. One of the guidelines is you always have to move as fast as you can and make sure you’re not really visible.
It’s not dangerous for me. I could get sent back, or whatever, and that’s the end of the story. But I think if the refugees are caught with me, they would be sent to jail, and sent back to North Korea.
AsianTalks: China can offer challenges to journalists like no other country. Where do you think you stand now, in terms of those challenges?
Katharina: I know how China operates. I can navigate in China. I speak Chinese. With my long-term clients, I think we understand each other pretty well, so I have quite a lot of freedom, because they trust me. Sometimes when you work with a new client you get a lot of guidelines, like what they want you to do, and you feel, “Wow. This is not even me anymore,” when you look at the result. With the media I work with on a regular basis, like Der Spiegel or Die Zeit, with them I have a mutual understanding. And I’ve been working with them for more than a decade.
Officially, there’s a lot of talk about censorship in China, which is true. But on the other hand, you can also have amazing experiences, where if you keep pushing, and pushing, you will get what you need.
AsianTalks: What approach do you take with the Chinese government, and people in general?
Katharina: To me, China is a country where in the beginning authorities tend to say no, and you work your way up, until they say yes.
One of the things you have to consider is seeing everybody here as equals. There’s still here and there a tendency to see Chinese, unconsciously, as inferior, or like Third World people. And they don’t consider themselves as the Third World. They see themselves totally as equals.
AsianTalks: What do the Chinese understand about the North Korean refugee situation?
Katharina: I think here in China, there’s very little knowledge of the North Korean refugee situation at the border. I would even say most people definitely do not know.
It’s interesting though. The ethnic Korean community up there, by the border, obviously they have a great interest and they are also the people who help out a lot. But it’s not an issue that’s very widely known inside China.
On the other hand I’ve met Chinese, who’ve been to North Korea. I think they find it very interesting. To them it’s a little bit like, looking, maybe, and to realize maybe what their own country was like, during the Cultural Revolution in the sixties.
AsianTalks: Have you visited North Korea?
Katharina: No, and I was told actually by Koryo Tours, because I have these pictures on my website it would probably be very difficult to even get a visa.
On the other hand, I’m not even sure if I’m that interested to go there, maybe at the moment, because the pictures I’ve seen, it’s like these good weather pictures. You can photograph what they show you, and really nothing else.
AsianTalks: Lastly, do you use translators in your line of work?
Katharina: For personal work that’s related to China, usually there’s no translator or fixer. For the North Korean refugees there were excellent translators or fixers without whom I couldn’t have taken those images.
Regarding the few projects I have done outside China, good fixers or assistants have always been important. For a project I was working on in Bangkok, for example, we changed three times until we found the right person, who then stayed with us for about three years.