Portraits of the Faceless

A Photographer Discusses Her Work “Borderland”

Nine years ago, photographer Katharina Hesse began to make portraits of North Korean defectors. To protect their identities she asked only that they “give something” of themselves to the photographs. Her subjects bury their faces in their hands, or slip them beneath the collar of a shirt or into the shadow cast by the brim of a hat. Hesse pairs the portraits with images of the desolate terrain the defectors must traverse to cross the border into China and of the brightly lit bridges over the Yalu River that will deliver them straight back to North Korea if they are caught. These are hard places to hide. Together, the portraits and the landscapes build a sense of the terror these people must feel as they try to move across such exposed spaces without being seen. Hesse’s photographs are the work of a journalist, but there is also something darkly poetic in the way they brood over the question of what it means to make pictures of people forced to hide in plain view.

Originally from Germany, Hesse has spent the past twenty years in China. Her work has been recognized by the Open Society Foundation and was included in this year's Moving Walls exhibition. She is currently looking for funding to continue the project.

Hesse spoke to ChinaFile about the origins of the project and stories behind the pictures.