Beijing-based Matjaž Tančič’s work knows no borders. The Slovenian photographer not only has ventured inside the cloistered, secretive North Korea, but gives us a glimpse inside the military state in 3D. It’s a particularly fascinating way to look at a country that’s viewed one dimensionally by the outside world.
Tančič’s body of work also isn’t constrained by the usual bounds of photographic categorization. Fashion, photojournalism, portraiture, advertising and fine-art projects are all part of Tancic’s visual realm, and they all play a part in his North Korea project.
DPP: How did you come up with the idea for the North Korea project?
Matjaž Tančič: I was visiting my friend Vicky Mohieddeen, who’s a filmmaker and works in Beijing for Koryo Tours. They specialize in bringing people to North Korea. I was showing her some photos, and Nick Bonner, the owner of the company, walked in. She said, “Nick, you have to see Matjaž’s 3D photos.” So he put on the pair of 3D glasses I had with me and took a look and was blown away. “Hey, we should do something in North Korea together! Are you interested?” I responded, “Hell, yeah!” But from this idea to realization took about eight months of negotiation. First, they went to Pyongyang and suggested the idea. Then another time they took some of my photos there. I remember seeing a photo of one North Korean in a uniform sitting at a round dinner table, and he’s wearing my 3D glasses and looking at my photos. Then there were the negotiations about the locations, about the concept, about everything. It took a long time, but in the end we managed to do it.
DPP: How long were you in the country once you got the green light?
Tančič: We were there for 10 days on a private tour. It was just me, with Vicky, who was the producer and filming behind the scenes, and two guides and a driver. Since we were such a small team, we managed to be really productive and visit a lot of places all over the country in our van. I did more than 100 portraits of all kinds of people. My concept was to photograph the normal people, the people that are always overlooked because they’re not the ones you encounter on every tourist tour or fit into propaganda or anti-propaganda, depending on your point of view. They’re not marching soldiers showing how powerful and strong the country is, and they’re not the hungriest political prisoners. I tried to capture these overlooked people as a study of present-day North Korean society. You can clearly see their fashion, their environment.
DPP: How are you able to create the images from a technical point of view?
Tančič: The theory behind 3D photography is really simple. You just need two photos, left and right, one for each eye. In theory, the distance between two cameras is about 6.3 millimeters because that’s the average distance between human eyes. But, in practice, it’s way harder. For every shot, you have to calculate the distance between cameras depending on how close you are to the first object in the photo, how far is the farthest object and what focal-length lens you’re using. You have to shoot with identical cameras, lenses and settings at the same time. I shot with the Nikon D810 and Coolpix A cameras that were triggered with custom-made wired and radio-control triggers. They were mounted on one tripod on a custom-made type of slider. I then used StereoPhoto Maker, a free, but powerful program made in Germany to put the images together in post. Another thing to keep in mind is if the viewer is going to be looking at images with the blue/red glasses, then you should avoid scenes with lots of blues or reds. Those colors don’t look particularly pleasant through 3D glasses. But I’ve been doing 3D for such a long time that I don’t have to struggle to figure out the alignment every time I set up a shot to get successful results.
DPP: So you can focus your efforts and energies on the subject.
Tančič: The subject is the most important aspect. I think this is the biggest problem with 3D. Too often people are more interested in producing images or movies where everything is flying in your face. They want 3D to be spectacular, but they forget about the subject and why they’re using 3D and what it can add to the photo itself so it’s not just a gimmick.
DPP: How did you light your subjects?
Tančič: Sometimes with an Elinchrom Quadra light with an Octabox, and other times with a Nikon SB-900 with a beauty dish.
DPP: What were some of the highlights and the frustrations of your time in North Korea?
Tančič: It was like time travel. When you land in North Korea, it’s like you just emerged from a time capsule. Everything is as it was in the 1950s or ’60s. The only reminder that you’re in the present are cell phones, and when you’re walking in your ’60s-style hotel room, there’s a plasma TV on the wall. Those are the only intruders into the present. For me, it wasn’t so shocking, because when I grew up in Yugoslavia, nowadays Slovenia, we had a similar system. We had one great leader, Tito. It wasn’t as extreme, but we had propaganda and military parades. There were images in North Korea that reminded me of what I had seen in my youth, especially the concrete architecture and big stadiums. Among the many highlights were visiting areas that have only recently been opened for tourism or places where people don’t usually go such as the Chollima Steelworks in Nampo, the second-largest steel company in the country.
The frustrations were that there are lots of amazing images that you see, but you
don’t bother even asking if you can shoot because you know the answer is going to be no. For instance, we were driving in the van in the countryside and all of a sudden there were 50 or 100 soldiers running next to the road in full army gear and wearing gas masks. It was a completely surreal scene that I would have loved to have photographed, but I didn’t even reach for my camera because I knew that there was no way that I was going to be allowed to photograph it. My guides were great. Mr. Kan was assisting me with my lights. Miss Kim was always talking with people and standing in for me while I was testing lights and camera positions. They were hard-working and great people, and I definitely couldn’t have done the project without them. So when they asked me not to photograph soldiers or construction sites, I had to respect the rules. It was the only way to work as a team so successfully.
DPP: How did you develop your career?
Tančič: While I was in primary school in Slovenia, my parents bought me a small point-and-shoot Pentax camera. I was super-excited using it, then one day it was lost on a school trip, and I was super-sad. A year later, I got my first Nikon SLR. So I started to do photography early on, but I wasn’t confident that I could live as a photographer. Slovenia is small, but we have great photographers working in the country and abroad. In high school, I was doing photography more and more, and started winning competitions, shooting for magazines and teaching photography courses. I built my confidence with my studies of tourism management in college, then applied to study fashion photography at the London College of Fashion. That’s the University of the Arts, London. One reason was that reportage photography was super-developed and saturated in Slovenia. I didn’t want to be fighting in a small fishbowl with the bigger fish. I wanted to swim in a bigger fishbowl with fewer fish, plus I like to photograph beautiful women and not just be an image taker, but an image maker—to be a bit more on the creative side. I did my final college project in 3D, a technique my photographer friend Peter Gedei from Slovenia introduced me to. He’s an amazing 3D cave photographer, published in National Geographic many times. I would joke with him, “Peter, your photos are fantastic, but the only thing missing in them is a beautiful girl.” So I did this final project called “Mimicry,” where I photographed female figures both dressed and a bit undressed around Slovenia and London in 3D despite initial resistance from my professors who thought I should go for something more traditional. It turned out to be one of the best projects that year and was exhibited at the college and some solo shows in London.
DPP: How did you end up basing yourself in Beijing?
Tančič: One day I received an email from China. “We love your 3D work, would you like to do the biggest 3D show in China?” At first I thought it was a scam or it wouldn’t happen, but I responded, and Peter and I went to China together with an assistant and a manager for 10 days. We ended up producing 20 photos in 10 days working with great Chinese models in Chinese environments. A month later, I flew back to the country for a huge opening for the photographs in the center of Beijing. It looked like the Grammy Awards, with a red carpet and guests. This time I stayed longer in China and traveled around and found it fascinating. I thought it would be a good place to stay and try some work. So I moved here and became a commercial photographer. Now, three years later, I’ve returned to my photojournalistic roots, but I also now do more fine-art projects, which are based on portraiture, while continuing to do fashion and commercial projects. One of them, “Timekeepers,” is an art-portrait-3D series.
China is developing so fast. Every photographer can find a niche here if they can bridge the cultural gap and find a way to position themselves. There’s a lot of great creative energy going on. Even with the bad air and terrible traffic, China has become the land of opportunity.