On November 9, 2009, thousands celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. At the climax of the celebration, a line of 1,000 giant dominoes were knocked over along a 2-kilometer strip where the wall once stood, symbolizing the effect that the wall’s destruction had on the fall of communism across Eastern Europe.
That day photographer Tomas van Houtryve was in a “dusty Chinese mountain town” shooting the re-enactment of a battle between Maoist revolutionaries and the Kuomintang. They were celebrating the birth of communism, while, a world away, others were heralding its death. Van Houtryve described the event to the audience at the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum in March.
Van Houtryve has been photographing communism around the world for the past seven years. His interest was piqued while studying in Nepal, where in the midst of claims of communism’s death, the country underwent a communist revolution that led to the toppling of the Nepalese monarchy in 2008.
“I began to wonder what had become of communism elsewhere in the world. The journey slowly became an obsession as I travelled to seven different countries to see how communism had survived and adapted to the 21st century,” Van Houtryve says. “I want to shed some new light on some of the most remote and poorly understood nations on our planet. I want to show the revolutionary arc - where the giddy communist dream starts, where it crumbles and decays, and where it is reborn in surprising ways.”
In addition to Nepal, he traveled to China, Cuba, Laos, Moldova, North Korea and Vietnam, visiting each country several times. The images he took in those countries are now published in his book, “Behind the Curtains.”
Gaining access in these places, where the media is under full Communist Party control, was not easy. Van Houtryve says he tried to stay under the radar as much as possible. In Nepal he traveled on foot and by horseback in search of the rebels and then had to win their trust to allow him to take photos.
He says that North Korea was the most difficult place to gain access. “I ended up posing as a chocolate consultant and infiltrating a business delegation to Pyongyang. I was allowed into factories and government ministries that had not been previously photographed by outsiders,” van Houtryve says. “I lived in a constant state of paranoia, afraid that my ruse for gaining access to the country would be unmasked. On my second to last night in Pyongyang, officials called my room at 11 p.m. asking about irregularities with my passport. I wasn't sure I would be able to wiggle out.”
He says that while officials were difficult to get access to, most of the everyday people he met were open to sharing their lives with him. He cites Cuba as being the most friendly. “I spent an evening in a café with an aging Cuban poet who recounted the excitement of the revolution followed by years of disillusionment serving in the Cuban army.”
He kept going back to the countries until he felt he had the material he needed for his book, returning to Cuba seven times. North Korea was again the hardest fought battle, and he laments not being able to document the forced labor camps that escapees of the country have reported.
In Saigon, Vietnam, he was able to trace a bit of his stepmother’s past. Originally from Vietnam, she has not been back since she fled after Saigon’s fall.
“I was able to find her family home and the old pharmacy that her parents had owned. When the communists came to power they confiscated the pharmacy and nationalized it. Part of the building was ceded to the family maid who I met, and she still lives there today.”
Throughout his journey he noticed a thread of similarity in many of the countries. “School children and soldiers had similar uniforms across the communist states, with red neckerchiefs or epaulettes. I also saw the same gloomy Soviet-style apartments in Moldova, Laos, Cuba and North Korea. There is a similar texture of monuments and decay across the communist landscape.
“The cult of personality was similar across all of the countries. Mao, Che, Lenin, Kim Il Sung and Ho Chi Minh were present in offices, schools, as statues, and badges and pins,” he says.
Van Houtryve says he wants people to understand the force communism still plays in the world, citing the fact that one-fifth of the world’s population lives under communist rule (mostly in China). “The party is no longer monolithic as it was in Soviet time - each surviving nation has split off on its own path to keep power. Power has become an end in itself for the Communist Party. The gap between the high ideals of communism and its grim reality are increasingly clear.
“We should never forget how quickly and viscously good intentions can be subverted for political power. Over 85 million people were killed under the Communist Party with a series of famines, gulags, purges, and executions during the 20th century. We should also remember that when capitalism gets out of control and injustices accumulate, people will start looking to the extremes for solutions. “
- Cody McCloy, CNN