Katharina Hesse was born in Germany. After studying Sinology and Japanese at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, she moved to China as a graduate student in 1993.
Hesse is a self-taught photographer who has worked throughout Asia for nearly two decades. Her work primarily focuses on social issues in China such as youth and urban culture, religion, and North Korean refugees. Her work has appeared in publications including Courrier International, Courrier Japon, Der Spiegel, D della Repubblica, Die Zeit, EYEmazing, Financial Times (UK & Germany), FT Magazine, Glamour (Germany), Marie-Claire, Le Monde, Le Monde Diplomatique, Le Monde 2, OjodePez, 100Eyes.org, Reporters Without Borders (yearbook 2010, Germany), Stern, Time (Asia), Vanity Fair (Italy & Germany), and Zeit Magazin. In 2011, Hesse and writer Laura Day published Human Negotiations, a book exploring the daily lives of sex workers in Bangkok, Thailand. She is represented by laif Agentur für Photos & Reportagen.
I began photographing North Korean refugees on the Chinese border about nine years ago, when an editor at a U.S. magazine contacted me for a photo assignment but was reluctant to give any details over the phone. Upon arriving in Northern China, I felt like I had entered a different world. As I accompanied a reporter in the barren border region, I listened to horrific tales of survival and violence: hungry people eating roots and grass or being shot for stealing food; civilians fleeing soldiers and living in a constant state of fear.
As we traveled along the border, I heard similar stories repeatedly: people dying of hunger; authorities violently punishing people for stealing food; teenage North Korean defectors missing their families; men in tears, overwhelmed with guilt about those they had left behind. At one interview, a young boy asked what the white liquid was when he saw his first glass of milk.
North Korea’s repressive regime uses selective food allocation as a tool to maintain loyalty among those deemed politically and economically useful. Meanwhile, state-run media produces propaganda designed to convince North Koreans that they are better off than people elsewhere.
After experiencing a world like this, it just didn’t feel “right” to take pictures and move on to the next job. The fear among these people was overwhelming. It was only on the condition that their identities were protected that I could photograph them. Locations could not be recognizable and names could not be used in text. To my surprise, North Koreans in Seoul made similar demands even though they had fled the North years ago.
Recent increases in access to foreign media and trade with businesspeople from neighboring countries like China have given many North Koreans more information about the outside world and the poor conditions in their own country.
Although North Koreans could be eligible for official UN refugee status, China prefers to categorize North Koreans as economic migrants. Therefore, most North Korean refugees on the border live in limbo without any protection from either China or international organizations like the UNHCR.
Borderland provides a more intimate and personal narrative to existing media coverage of North Korea as the world’s “most reclusive” communist country. As media attention fluctuates, North Korea’s refugees remain an enduring presence whose stories need to be told.
—Katharina Hesse, April 2013