Anyone sketching a still life, will quickly learn that the negative spaces - the gaps between the subjects - are just as vital as the objects in focus. Something similar goes on in music - listen to any of the great jazz pianist, and you'll 'hear' the pauses between the notes.
Rory Maclean's and Nick Danziger's latest book IN NORTH KOREA: lives and lies in the state of truth is masterpiece of what writers call 'show not tell'. Interviewing a carefully selected (not by them) cast of everyday citizens, they chronicle the daily life and hopes of a farmer, fisherman, soccer player, student, subway attendant... More accurately, they record the public versions of these lives, as told in the presence of note taking officials, jotting down every phrase, full stop and comma.
If only those observers had been writers - they'd have understood that while words tell one story; silence presents another.
An master of sensitivity, Maclean records the words without comment - transcribing assertions of love and loyalty to our dear leader, so accurately, and so frequently, that their emptiness echoes with his sorrow. Danziger's photos are a counterpoint to the verbatim: stark, graphical, at times arrestingly banal - they are disconcertingly full, and yet bereft of feeling.
IN NORTH KOREA (available only on Kindle) is a short book; more of a factual novella. It was made possible with help of the British Council, which facilitated access to the usually closed republic. I've no doubt that Maclean's natural diplomacy was put to regular use too - and the project of course, is especially prescient given recent events.
A side of me thinks it's a pity the publication is exclusive to Kindle. Another part - the one that's a fan of digital media - is glad, as it demonstrates the format can launch important work too. The photographs - because they are in colour - work best on a tablet version, using the app that can be downloaded for free. At £2.99 the book shouldn't exclude on the basis of price.
If there's any weakness to the book, to my mind it's the two-page afterword - the one point at which the authors drop their guard and comment, albeit briefly, on the rising tensions with the West. Perhaps that's inevitable, but to my mind the stories and pictures are stronger stand-alone - their interpretation best left to the reader, and to time.
But with that one exception, Maclean and Danziger have created a subtle and powerful work. For as all artists, and for that matter, all politicians and dictators, know; truth and lies are as much in what we leave out, as what we say.