The totalitarian dictatorship’s bizarre leader cult, in which people bow to statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. XXL formation dances at major sporting events. A polished shot of smartly dressed women strolling past high-rise buildings with reflective facades. These are propagandistic motifs on which North Korea presents itself in a way that pleases the rulers of the Kim dynasty.

But Andreas Taubert also photographs other scenes. The policeman who stands in the middle of the crossroads and has no traffic to direct. Farmers pull ox carts. A doctor examines the patient in a spartan clinic. A woman piggybacks a legless man.

Or the panorama of a skyscraper that at first glance looks like a honeycomb anywhere in the world.

But a closer look reveals that vegetables are grown on the balconies. “And everywhere there are sheds in which people keep rabbits and chickens,” says Andreas Taubert during a tour of the exhibition.

When photographing official North Korea, he also succeeds in capturing everyday views that provide insights into real life in the isolated country. And so illuminate the lack of wheelchairs and food.

Showing and not showing, these are the poles between which the exhibition “Freedom behind bars” in the Friedrichshain photo gallery moves. One searches in vain for dates, recording locations or explanations. It is not Taubert’s business to pretend to present a specific image of North Korea. He knows about the photographic staging. And the dubious expressiveness of the medium in a country that does not allow visitors freedom to travel.

Taubert puts the photo of a dilapidated fuse box on a house wall, which is quickly taken as evidence of the crumbling infrastructure in Kim Jong-un’s empire, into perspective. “I can also photograph Berlin for you in an elegant glossy version or in a rocked-down post-war version.”

Here – unlike in Pyongyang – there is no minder and no unwanted motifs have to be deleted, as happened to Taubert. But the local companions are also useful, he says. In North Korea, there is definitely an atmosphere of cowardice and mutual observation that is typical of authoritarian systems. The minder works as a calming factor for people and as a door opener anyway.

The photographer, who was born in Leipzig in 1964, is familiar with the mentality of distrust. Of course he sees parallels between the GDR and North Korea, says Taubert, who took photos for GDR newspapers without being a member of the SED.

He first took pictures in North Korea in the summer of 1989 at the World Festival of Youth and Students, which he photographed for Bravo des Ostens, the youth magazine New Life. As one of the first foreign photographers who were even allowed into the country.

The forbidden, the impossible appealed to him, North Korea became his specialty as a member of the Bilderberg photography agency. He has been there around 20 times since then, most recently in 2016. A visit to make a cinema documentary was postponed several times due to the pandemic. Now it should go again in April 2023.

How has the impression of the country changed during this time? “Little, only a few more cars drive on the streets.” There is now an internal cell phone network. And an effort for small opening steps, which, according to Taubert’s observation, are very difficult. Visible sign is the photo of the chic employees in front of the show houses. It was created, says Taubert, during a visit to tour operators hoping to boost tourism.

An atmospheric still life of a couple eating, photographed through a restaurant window, symbolizes the private moments of happiness in life that exist in North Korea as well as everywhere else. “People are locked in a terrible dictatorship,” says Andreas Taubert, “but still want to make the best of it. You can party. You are friendly. They try to add color to their everyday lives.”

Since it is not possible to explore the country individually, Taubert, who has long since specialized in advertising photography, has always photographed North Korea as a commissioned work. This also explains the stylistic differences. He was for the “Stern” and the “Spiegel”, as a companion of parliamentary delegations or Welthungerhilfe, for whose North Korea aid he is committed.

In 2001 he accompanied the transport of a food donation of beef, which had become unsaleable in Germany due to the BSE crisis, reached North Korea by refrigerated ship and was distributed there. With such stories one misses explanatory texts.

Taubert’s exhibition is supported by the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Regime, which not only acquired his archive of 70,000 GDR photographs, but also 3,000 North Korean photographs. Precisely because of the social parallels in communist dictatorships, as Sabine Kuder says, who is responsible for public history at the Federal Foundation.

At the opening, she praised Taubert’s ability to tell a different story using official photos. And emphasizes the necessity of these documents for the historical mediation work. Incidentally, the most frequent groups of foreign visitors to the Federal Foundation are South Koreans who are preparing for Day X of the long-awaited reunification with North Korea, says Kuder.

Looking at Andreas Taubert’s well-known photo of the Panmumjeon demarcation line, where South Korean border guards stand just a few arm’s lengths from stern-looking North Korean guards, this development seems almost palpable. Ideologues other than Kim Jong-un have fallen.