The exodus of North Korean defectors into China began in late 1990s after a severe famine that destroyed at least one million of its 23 million people. Once they cross the border to China, they’ll be in hiding and waiting to embark on an extremely secretive, dangerous escape route, known as Asia’s Underground Railroad from northern China all the way to Laos, crossing Mekong River, to Thailand and finally to South Korea.
The unpredictable journey can take weeks, months or even years. Chinese police routinely hunt for North Koreans attempting to escape cross-country. Police crackdowns can net hundreds of victims. If they are caught while escaping in China and Laos, they will be repatriated to totalitarian North Korea, facing severe labor camps or capital punishment. Magnum photographer Chien-Chi Chang traveled with the defectors to document the darkest journey in 2007 and 2008. To date, He has continued to document the plight of North Korean defectors.
Also on February 18th, Chang’s exhibition Burmese Days will open at Chi-Wen Gallery, and will continue until March 24th.
About Chang Chien-Chi
Primarily using photography as his artistic medium, Chang Chien-Chi, (b. 1961) explores alienation and connection between people in contemporary society by developing long-term, interactive relationships with the subjects. In his earlier, well-known series The Chain which was exhibited at the Taiwan Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2001 and Bienal de São Paulo in 2002, Chang creates life-sized portraits of patients at Taiwan’s Long Fa Temple psychiatric hospital. His 2001 series I do I do I do exposes subtle societal factors that underpin marriage using a photo album format. In his 2005 series Double Happiness, Chang uses a straight-forward format to document the marriage brokerage process used by Vietnamese brides and Taiwanese grooms.
Starting in 1992 Chang became interested in themes related to the dispersion of individuals or families from their homeland, and in the 19 years hence, followed the lives of illegal immigrants in New York City’s Chinatown who left China as a matter of survival. Entitled China Town and still in progress, the series was exhibited in the artist’s mid-career survey Doubleness at the National Museum of Singapore in 2008, and at the Taiwan Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2009. In 2007 Chang traveled with North Korean defectors from Northeast China to Thailand, documenting their lives for his work Escape from North Korea, which won the Canadian AnthropoGraphia Award for Human Rights in 2011. In recent years Chang has expanded his medium to include sound and the moving images, which has enriched his image based narratives with additional, multiple elements.
Chang received his bachelor’s degree from Soochow University in 1984, and his master’s from Indiana University in 1990. He began a professional career as a photojournalist in 1991, and has worked for both the Seattle Times and the Baltimore Sun. He joined the world famous photographic cooperative Magnum Photos in 1995.