Red Ink: An Interview with Max Pinckers

Text by Sarah Sunday
First published in Musée Magazine, January 2019

A photographer accustomed to staging and controlling scenes in order to create his images, in 2017 Max Pinckers traversed into an environment that was completely staged, and yet absolutely out of his control when he traveled to North Korea on assignment for the New York Times. In his book Red Ink, Pinckers captures images from the capital city Pyongyang amidst the heightened tensions between the superpowers of the United States and North Korea. Embarking on a mentally and creatively strenuous assignment, Pinckers plays upon the element of contrived and propagandized images with the use of flash and artificial light cast upon the backdrop of a regime of dictatorship.

How would you describe your style of photography?
I don’t like the word ‘style' because it suggests that it’s more about consistency in terms of a formal aspect. To define one particular style would be contrary to what I try to do. The main thing that defines my work is that I’m always trying to look for different documentary strategies. I really try to think about what defines the documentary form in photography and how stories can be told using different methods in contrary to the more traditional notion of documentary photography.

How is 'Red Ink' different from other projects you’ve done in the past?
Red Ink is a special one because it’s the only project up until now that was initially an assignment, but that I also consider part of my personal body of work. What distinguishes it from the previous work I’ve done is that usually when I’m making documentary work I’m applying different methods in which I stage and manipulate things. I intervene a lot in the situations and I build sculptures on location, but in Red Ink, this was completely turned around. I was very much an observer and just photographed what I came across. The very preconception of a place like North Korea already has this idea that everything is staged or manipulated for you anyway, so I didn’t have to do that myself. I chose to photograph in this way, using the aesthetic that references advertising or propaganda. Everything looks a bit too good to be true. It’s all lit very well and the photos look like fashion pictures sometimes.

Why do you use the flash in your photography?
I've always used artificial light and flashes, but it always changes a little bit depending on the subject or the story. In this work I chose to work with a ring flash, which I hadn’t done before. I did this for practical reasons because everything had to be photographed very quickly and I didn’t have time to set up any lighting or really control the situation. It’s a funny anecdote actually; they took away the batteries from my ring flash when I was on the airplane from Beijing to Pyongyang, so I had to manufacture an improvised flash system with duct tape and small flashes that I attached to my camera. It gave the lighting a different feeling from what we’re used to seeing from a ring flash. At the end of the day it turned out to be an advantage.

Did you ever get a true sense of poverty in North Korea?
No, that’s definitely something you don’t get to see when you visit, and everything is done to make sure that you don’t see that. Also, Pyongyang is the city where practically everybody that works for the government or the regime lives. It’s very much a privilege to be able to live there as a North Korean. It’s very different compared to the rest of the country. Everybody in Pyongyang automatically behaves in a certain way, most likely motivated by the fear of the regime and the implications of doing something you’re not supposed to. It’s a model city for visitors to see and nobody ever gets to see the real North Korea. We didn’t get to see it. We also didn’t expect to see it. That’s exactly why we took this approach, emphasizing the manipulative nature of everything we photographed.

Before you went, did you feel you were risking your safety by taking the trip?
Yes, because it was during the peak of the tension between the US and North Korea. Kim Jong Un was threatening to bomb Guam and Trump was calling him ‘rocket man’. This escalated quite quickly and then the student Otto Warmbier had just returned and then died. I went there with my wife, Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras and Evan Osnos, an American journalist. Osnos is a staff writer for the New Yorker, but he spent a lot of time in China. The main concern was that there was a possibility that they would retain the American journalist as a bargaining chip for the diplomatic situation that was going on because they tend to do that. That was our main issue and then there were a lot of issues about cyber security. There was a whole war going on between North Korea and the outside world in terms of hacking.

You’re just never really sure, because you arrive there and they take away your passport. You have no phone, no internet. You’re completely put into the hands of the regime and that’s a scary thing. You're not completely aware of the etiquette or how you’re supposed to behave. Mentally, it’s a very a difficult situation. Physically, not at all. You’re always very physically safe, but you are experiencing mental manipulation and paranoia.

What is a big risk that you’re planning/looking to take in your life or career now?
There are risks on many different levels. Embarking on a new project and stepping into an unknown field is always risky because you never know if it’s going to be interesting or successful, or if you’re going to achieve what you want to achieve. For our next project we’re working in Kenya with old Mau Mau fighters. They’re the men and women who fought against the British colonial administration in the 1950’s. They were almost like guerrilla fighters who were put in concentration camps, tortured and hung in the masses. We are now doing reenactments with the Mau Mau fighters that actually fought against the British who are now 80 and 90 years old, and we’re telling their version of the story. For me, that’s again, a completely different kind of subject and that’s going to have a completely different kind of approach. Dealing with reenactments, history and archival material is a very sensitive path. The positioning of a white privilege gaze on a historical moment of colonial exploitation is a very difficult space to tackle. I’m much more concerned with the risk in an artistic, creative, conceptual or philosophical sense. It’s more about trying to tackle subjects that are more complex, difficult and complicated. It makes the work more interesting, but it also comes with a higher risk as well.