With Phantom, Likeness of North Korean, photographer Doh Lee embarks upon an ontological journey, exploring the middle ground between movement and expression, between fear and hope, and between past and present. Subjects of his portrait series are North Korean refugees in the UK, individuals whose identities are suspended in a zone of liminality, between freedom and residues of political and cultural suppression. Doh Lee's photography centres on the face, as projection site of anxieties, relief, and humanity, as he searches for meaning beyond the mere visible.

A self portrait of photographer Doh Lee.

A self portrait of photographer Doh Lee.

Elena Stanciu: Please tell me a little about the Phantom, Likeness of North Korean series. Who are your subjects?

Doh Lee: Phantoms are people with invisible lives. They are the ones who live without an identity. Despite being here, present, governments or institutions do not validate their presence, so they wander. I took portraits of North Korean refugees living in the UK to capture their Korean heritage and to attempt a form of freeing the captives from political and interpersonal divides.

From the series Phantom, Likeness of North Korean 2014 by Doh Lee.

 

ES: I look at these portraits and I am left wanting to see more, craving clarity, sharpness, and context. What prompted the blurry, vanishing, minimal style?

DL: These portraits are partly my exploration of the experience of defectors as a time of darkness. I am concerned with the limits of their identity, of their belonging, and the possibilities to maintain social or cultural relations. My portraits seek natural parts of their identity, in an effort to understand the material consequence of difference, as a significant mark of individuality. The blur reflects existential fear and anxiety; my inspiration came from surrealist abstraction, and a reflection on the corruption of human spirit.

From the series Phantom, Likeness of North Korean 2014 by Doh Lee.

 

ES: When I think of North Korea, I think of uniformity, of lack of diversity as a threat to individuality and a challenge for people to explore their unique identity. Is that your understanding too? Is there some universal feature you notice in all your portrait subjects, a characteristic so inherently human that nobody can escape it, hide it?

DL: I imagine that before coming to the UK, they did indeed have it hard to affirm an identity other than the one the government would approve. But freedom comes with the possibility of self-discovery. In this project, I have attempted to show their reality now, and most importantly to mediate an understanding of their past. What I would say is universal to every person´s facial expression is a story of their past, that sometimes we are lucky enough to decipher.

ES: Have you ever felt betrayed by photography as a medium of creative expression? Have you ever felt like photography was not enough to express what you wanted to express?

DL: Yes. I actually don’t feel photography is enough.

Untitled photograph by Doh Lee.

Untitled photograph by Doh Lee.

ES: In your photographic practice, you experiment with fact and fantasy. What is your understanding of reality? Do you ever feel like we cannot see reality unless mediated?

DL: Photography is not only a means of representation but also of creating a new reality. Photography is probably the last art form to consider fiction and invention to be perfectly acceptable forms of expression. My subjects here were not familiar with striking a pose before me, they could not hide their awkward and unnatural facial expression. I found that fascinating. Fantasy is a part of reality, and often a stand in for reality. It is not only a matter of mediation, but also of interpretation.

Untitled photograph by Doh Lee.

Untitled photograph by Doh Lee.

ES: We all have portraits of ourselves, and we keep them for years. Do you think that these representations of our bodies, of our faces frozen in time influence the way we remember our lives and ourselves?

DL: It will influence it but I believe over the years what we remember changes, and how we view the portrait will also change. So it can never be frozen in time, it travels with us, grows old with us, as it reminds us of the past.

Words: Elena Stanciu

Photography: Doh Lee