Posted on July 29, 2013
Prior to the break of dawn, there is the pure ‘silence of nature’ as a man begins his day. There are no beeping alarm clocks, no blare of traffic and it is the noticeable absence of the incessant sounds of technology ~ a staple of our every day existence ~ that creates greater peace to this calm.
The silence of nature, with only faint sounds of the water lapping along the skiff and soft squawks of cormorants as the fisherman prepares himself for the day. Such scenes were common centuries ago, but today are just rare hints of a glorious past.
Nothing captures my interest more than mystical stories of the past. Stories of folklore that can provide an adventurous path to archaic ideas and faraway cultures: sanctuaries to contemplate what was, what is and what could be.
Tales from the past, part myth and part tradition, containing so much excitement that we are never sure “what to and not to believe.” So we take it all in and churn these ideas around in our heads. Folklore, a hint of our creative past pushing to remind us not to take our present so seriously.
When a piece of folklore shows itself in modern times, it draws out the calm and romantic emotions of days gone by.
Amid the talk of terabytes and the latest sound bites from twitter, a piece of folklore can instantly transport us back centuries and silence the screams of modernity.
Today, when met with such folkloric sights as Cormorant fishing, it is hard not to believe it is authentic…as it is all based on cultural traditions.
The fishermen on the picturesque Li River in Southern China still exist, but not as their forefathers would have envisioned. Like their kin, their livelihood and to some extent their culture dictates them to carry-on with their ancient traditions, but instead of fishing as a craft, they fish to exploit their craft for tourism, strongly supported by the local government .
Does this act take away from the magic of viewing these last practitioners of ancient cormorant fishing? At some level yes, as it is impossible to see it for anything but what it is today…however, inside it does strike a chord as it takes little imagination to see such a scene unfold as it took place centuries ago.
That is the beauty.
The magic of photography can pull these mystical, ancient stories out from the attic and bring them to life today. Is it necessary to describe the modern scene of today’s logic? Or just let the imagination flow and take us back…to feel the romance of history and culture, to dream of a time where mortals and gods mingled daily. Stories of folklore make this possible.
Ancient cultures are vanishing as societies modernize. While globalization brings people closer, there is no doubt that it also distills and homogenizes cultures.
The romantics of the world will always long for the ideals and spirit of the past, be it the Cowboys of the American West or Ancient Fishermen of Folklore in China.
Often, the enemy is the incessant din of technology, and the narcissistic pursuit to be heard (ahem, this blog for instance). The hum of computers and ring-tones of cell phones all which drive a wedge between ancient folklore and modern reality.
Yet, tech can be the savior as well. Our job, as either artists or as those who appreciate great art, is to educate and pass-on the folklore to the next generation. To ensure the spirit never dies. Whether in stories, poetry, paintings or photography to name a few mediums, it is the respect and preservation of the past that helps fulfill the dreams of tomorrow.
Posted on July 26, 2013
So back to my original question about the DPRK: What lies beyond the fog?
After one week it is impossible to have any definitive answer, as the government works very hard to keep things shrouded in mystery. This realization, while not surprising, is still disappointing. The game of politics is in full gear.
However, the ‘embrace’ from the local people, muted compared to the West, was a thrill. Especially the rare moments when we could glimpse into their lives. Such moments were brief, yet very welcomed as the trip seemed overshadowed by the government’s attempt to control all aspects of society (and our travel).
Big Brother was disheartening. The country, in many ways, has become a tragic comedy.
The comedy being that the DPRK is viewed internationally as the Hermit Kingdom and the butt of many jokes, which ends up masking the great tragedy of the people: the people who endure and sacrifice in propping up this malignant government at the expense of their dreams.
The population lives on a lot of hope amid great despair. Hope in that Kim Jong-un will act on youthful idealism, and do what is right for his people. Despair in the military rulers, who have been so deeply corrupted by power that any transition may be impossible.
While many questions are unanswerable, as my past posts have shown, the DPRK is filled with a population of great people. While they are somewhat skeptical and stoic in public, beneath that veneer shines curiosity and warmth.
It starkly contrasts the oppression of the government.
The last night in Korea was spent at the Pyongyang Fun Fair (a carnival that is open to the public), and I marveled at the ease in which we were able to mesh with the locals. While the trip as a whole allowed us a very narrow view of the society, it was still enough to open eyes.
The country has been stagnant for decades, but the changing dynamics of the world and flow of information has already triggered the inevitable transition of the DPRK into the 21st century.
There are heroes in the DPRK, but they are not the ones immortalized in bronze statues or paintings. Rather, they are the ones who flash genuine smiles and, when possible, ask probing questions about the world.
They are the ones who see that ‘living in a system’ is not an ideal way to live; unrealized dreams will eventually catch up and take over a life. They are the ones who see difficulties for future generations, and that triggers the desire for change.
Desire, when strong enough, can be the impetus for change. It is this desire that surprised me during my final week in the DPRK. It was in the background of every defining moment I had in Pyongyang and Kaesong: desire for connection fueled by curiosity of the world.
If you would have asked me two weeks ago, I could have confidently stated the DPRK was a nation without any understanding of the outside world. Today, it is much more of an enigma.
As I head out to the train station to say good-bye to the Europeans and Canadians I have met during my time here, I see groups of young Koreans getting ready to board a train into China.
There has been 50 years where creative minds have remained idle here in the DPRK, and I believe those days are gone. “Change is a comin’…” is what the youth of Korea are now shouting.
Will the transition of change be peaceful? The world sure hopes so, but change will be on the terms of the Korean people.
As I watch the train pull out (being an American, I am banned from any train travel…), my mind reflects on the past week.
We have this short period of time on Earth to enjoy life. To enjoy the different people and cultures of the world before we make that final walk towards the end.
Wouldn’t that final walk be great if we all walked through together, in peace?
Posted on July 16, 2013
Prior to leaving for the DPRK, I had kept my eyes on any news between the North and the South, especially in regards to the Kaesong Industrial Region. The DPRK had shut down the factories in this region the month prior, causing great tension between the DPRK and the rest of the world.
While impossible to fully understand what the logic was behind the shut down, outside of political rhetoric between the two sides, there did not seem to be too much worry about anything spinning out of control.
Little did I know that with just about 24 hours remaining in my stay in the DPRK, it would be the backdrop to the biggest surprise and one of the most interesting moments of the trip: ♪♬…You say you want a revolution…♬♪.
Each new day in the DPRK has had times where I thought, “this is the coolest moment”, and usually it was something relatively simple yet unexpected. On this day, there was an unexpected moment that went beyond such simplicity.
We had returned to Pyongyang from Kaesong by mid-afternoon and the plan was to make our way to the Juche Tower to spend the afternoon atop the tower for a panoramic view of the city. From there, walk around the area. However, as we worked out way into the city, our car kept getting re-routed by sudden road closures.
This was baffling to our driver and guide, as they clearly did not understand the reason behind these delays and closures. One positive, though, it did give us a chance to view other parts of the city, and watch the afternoon activity.
As we wound our way around the heart of the city and crossed the river, we finally arrived at the Juche Tower, losing about an hour due to the re-route. It was a minor concern, as the tower closed at 6pm.
Being an hour late, though, had its benefits as the light was a bit warmer nearer to sunset, and made it possible to catch softer reflections off the Taedong River.
Arriving on the viewing platform of the Tower, we saw a pretty amazing sight: Kim Il-Sung Square, which was supposed to be filled with people practicing for the “Mass Games” as I had shown in earlier photos, had turned chaotic.
Today, it was filled to capacity with red banners and chanting citizens. A loud protest.
Above: Protest at Kim Il Sung Square from Juche Tower, Below Mass Games Practice
While we did not know what the protest was for, we later found out it was in regards to the South Korean government not re-committing to talks on the ‘Special Administrative Region” in Kaesong.
There was a buzz that perhaps Kim Jong-Un would show up and give a speech, but our guide quickly said that would be impossible as he was not believed to be in the country, but the look in her eyes also said ‘wouldn’t that be special to see him speak!’
The chanting, the banners and the mass of people packed into the square was pretty invigorating and kind of emotional. To be honest, part of me was hoping that this mass protest was just beginning and soon emotions would erupt around the country and people would flood the streets demanding democracy…and we could see something powerful, similar to what had happened in Cairo, Egypt.
It did not take much to realized that the situation in the DPRK is different than in Egypt, and to have such mass protests would be disastrous. Baby steps are needed here. The voice of the people in Egypt can be heard…where as in the DPRK it has been muted for decades.
This protest, however, was exciting as there was passion. So I began begging our guide Ms. Kim to take us to the protest so we could become involved…to which she laughed and said I really was a troublemaker. No such luck.
The area of around the Juche Tower was pretty normal, no sign of the protest activities influencing anything on this side of the river. It was pretty clear that the protests were well choreographed, although it was said to be “off-the-cuff.” Any protest under a Totalitarian government I assume would have to be sanctioned, the people simply do not hold any power. Nonetheless, very intriguing.
It reminded me of films I have seen regarding protests in China 50 years ago, a bit of a surreal moment that felt like I had walked back into time…detached from all the emotion, except for the physical experience of being there.
As we continued our tour of the eastern part of Pyongyang, my attention kept being drawn to the chanting on the other side of the river… The feeling to believe in something so strongly with all your countrymen is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly rare, which makes it more powerful.
The sun is going down on all Totalitarian regimes, and the voice of the people will be heard. It is hard to argue against democracy. I do agree with Churchill who once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.”
The red banners flying freely in the wind on Kim Il Sung Square made an impact. They showed unity, and it is not so different from the Spirit of ’76 and shows the passion for freedom lives within everyone.
It is not too hard to sort through all the different cultural aspects and language barriers to see the common thread of pursuing hopes and dreams. A spirit that rings true in the populations of every nation on Earth, and should inspire us all to take advantage of our opportunities.
It is the eternal optimist in me that believes in the DPRK, when the people speak a young leader, with a grasp of the modern world, will understand that it is his job and legacy to bring these voices to the world.
It is the surest path to evolve into a stronger nation, and to give a population a new path to chase their dreams.
♬♪ We all want to change the world…♬♪
Posted on July 12, 2013
What lies beyond Pyongyang? This was a question that I have been pondering for a few days. The city, as any capital city in the world, has its moments of allure. As I mentioned earlier, it is a place where I could spend a fair amount of time learning and enjoying a new culture.
The DPRK has already been a far cry from what I had expected, which led me to wonder what else was out there. A glimmer of an answer was captured as we traveled down south to Kaesong.
As expected, the landscape was very similar to farming villages seen throughout China (and Asia). Was the countryside poor? Yes, in the sense that the farmers lived a very rough life of working in the fields all day, and there is no question they get by on less compared to their countrymen who live in large cities.
While the DPRK government tries to hide this from the outside world, I can only shake my head. Sure, you have your sensationalist reports such as the Panorama program on BBC (led by the infamous John Sweeney), who are an embarrassment to journalism, trying to play up the angle of “this is what the DPRK doesn’t want you to see…” But it is irrelevant.
Poor people, and poor areas do not like to be exploited, and I would not care to be filmed or have photos taken for the sole purpose of being ogled by foreigners. Why is this surprising?
However, if true travelers had access to the countryside of the DPRK, the number of beautiful photographs of farmers and the land they till would vastly out number negative reports. Although the farmers are poor, they are proud and they are respected for the work they do.
It does not take much imagination to see what a great place this world could be if we had farmers as our leaders. The respect of farmers is strong on both sides of the DMZ.
The Unification Arch between Pyongyang and Seoul
The drive south to Kaesong did allow the time for us to exhale and take in the scenery. A switching of gears to catch a glimpse of the agricultural side of the DPRK as well as to explore a little of Kaesong, a historic city as well as a neighbor to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
As the opening photo showed, on the drive down we had perhaps one of the most glorious sunsets I have ever seen. It started off as simply a nice sunset, with different hues of yellows and orange that arrived as we stopped at the well-known “tea shop” rest area halfway between Pyongyang and Kaesong. The capture of this sunset scene is below.
As we got on the bus, and traveled perhaps 20 more kilometers, the skies switched from the typical yellow/orange to a pink & purple hue that is as rare as it is beautiful. Fortunately the guides agreed to stop the bus so we could step out and take in the beautiful sight (the opening photo of this post).
The sunset and dusk made up for the late arrival into Kaesong and the disappointment of being restricted to stay on hotel grounds at all times. After the drive, I had hoped to be able to walk around the town a bit but also realized such freedom was very unlikely. The hotel we were staying in Kaesong, however did make up for that disappointment as it was a traditional Korean hotel (Minsok Hotel) located in the old town with houses from the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~ 1897).
One thing I have been very grateful for is that there are a few North Koreans that speak Mandarin Chinese. It has led to some pretty funny comments, and always their shock, surprise and wonderful smile that this ’round-eye’ can speak a language they understand. What has been the fun part about this, is that they get the humor (my poor wit), and really have a good laugh.
At one shop, I ended up buying Kim Jong Il‘s book “On the Juche Idea“ (an incredible cure for insomnia), and I ask the lady helping me about the Kim Il Sung pin she was wearing and how I would love to trade the pin I was wearing (a Chinese & DPRK flag) for hers. I added that such a trading of pins was “a common tradition where I am from when meeting new friends.” She had a great giggle and one of the most mischievous grins I have seen, but without pause waved her finger “no” – enough said.
The meaning I sensed is that these pins mean something deep to them, and it just is not possible to part with them. Whether it is an attachment to a pin they treasured deeply (cultish in nature), or a fear of repercussions if they are seen without one (or worse yet, seen giving one to a foreigner). I hope it is the first one, as the paranoia created by the second option seems a bit scary, and eerily possible.
The main reason to travel down to Kaesong, was to visit the DMZ from the view of the North. It was going to be an intriguing experience, in part because we had two women from Sweden in our group who had visited the DMZ from the view of South Korea. They said that it was a bit terrifying, as the soldiers were stern and they were warned many times of the risk (the potential to be shot by a North Korean soldier).
These two gentlemen would quickly end my ’15-seconds of fame’ scampering to the South
Given this very bleak and macabre story of how the DMZ was managed in the South, we figured that visiting the DMZ in the North would be worse: the danger and seriousness was going to be “amped up” to the maximum.
We assumed wrong. The DPRK soldiers were definitely all business (some minor restrictions on photography and movement outside of the group), but they also used common sense. In the words of people who had visited both the sides of the DMZ, it was the North that seemed to have more rational heads about them. That is a scary thought.
Abandoned Kansai wrote an excellent article describing this area: http://abandonedkansai.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/north-korea-panmunjom-joint-security-area/
In short, at the DMZ, we saw the best of the DPRK military troops I suppose. Guys who had strong personalities, but who could not help cracking a smile and showing us a side that seemed to say “we take this situation seriously, but we also understand that neither side is going to step out of line.”
While the soldiers on duty were pure seriousness, the ones who had to interact with us were respectful and approachable (via a translator). They received respect because of their demeanor and attitude…never were they condescending. While I have never been to the South side of the DMZ, the Americans, Swedes and Belgians who had all visited the Southern DMZ (both ROK and US military), felt more at ease and secure in the North. That blew me away. Still does. I want to check out the Southern side of the DMZ to form my own opinion.
The city of Kaesong itself was quite nice… The air was fresh and scenery quite beautiful, and the historical significance only added to the allure. The prize of Kaesong was the Koryo museum, which was incredible, and I am not a museum person. Again, I will let Abandon Kansai do the honors with his great write-up: http://abandonedkansai.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/north-korea-kaesong-koryo-museum/
During the tour, one of the guides was very polite, and while initially not too keen on being photographed, once she was relatively confident that she was not going to be the center of attention, she nodded enthusiastically. She was very excited to see how the photos turned out.
The final thought, as we drove out of Kaesong was that for being so close to the South – the differences between the ultra-developed society of Seoul, starkly contrasted the bare-basics of the DPRK.
This led me to wonder what the DPRK has to offer. To many, the answer is clear: a more “authentic” Korean culture. There seems to be a strong pulse of Koryo that moves throughout this country, and I can see why the Korean people yearn for reunification. Both sides have so much to gain.
Posted on July 9, 2013
Watching the children of the Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace perform was impressive, and after the show there was a lot of talk about how hard these kids had to work…then came a magical comment from Alexandra Kostiw, when she stated: “kind of reminds you of the Honey Boo-boo culture back in the States…”
Amid the laughter, an idea was born.
What are the role models of the kids in the DPRK and how do they compare to the role models for kids in the USA?
Reality TV has become one of the best exports of the USA this past decade (not quite sure that is a good thing to promote), and almost every Asian country has its youths (and parents) riveted to local reality shows.
So I figured I would take a quick look at three areas and see whether the kids from the USA or the DPRK are better equipped for the future.
Round One: Television ~ How TV influences children of both cultures
Considering that TV is perhaps the best educational tool ever created, and it looks like we are reaching new highs in quality programming with great shows as:
Unfortunately, TV programming is still in its infancy in the DPRK, they are only able to offer the following:
Pretty much one choice of propaganda in the DPRK. My guess is that while it is a little horrifying to have a daughter admire the stars of “Teen Moms”, at least in our hands is a TV-clicker that allows us to switch between the propaganda of FOX news and CNBC to Toddlers & Tiaras and Kim Kardashian.
As for the DPRK, since the electricity is cut most of the time, their children do not even get the educational value of TV. Instead, and this is rather funny, they actually have to read something called “books” and there are also utensils called “pens and pencils” where children have to actually write out the words on paper!
Can you imagine the quality of adults they will grow up to be with such limitations?
Clear victory for the USA!
Round Two: The Deification of Kim ~ How the myth of Kim influence our children.
Now this is a tough one.
Every place I go, be it in the buildings, on the subways, on billboards, newspapers and everywhere I look, I see photographs of Kim.
However, after a week in the DPRK, I saw almost as many photos of their Kim as I did our Kim, which probably why I felt so at home. This competition is too close to call.
Given that our Kim just had a beautiful baby girl named North West (no middle name), I say we make a deal with the DPRK. We give Ms. North West the middle name of “Korea” and then export her and Kim to the DPRK where they can star in “Keeping Up with North Korea Kardashian…” or better yet, the ultimate DPRK reality show: “Kim Vs. Kim”
During sweeps week, “Kim Vs. Kim” could have a great battle of egos where the DPRK holds their first democratic elections to decide which Kim stays.
Based on the photos alone, another win for the USA.
Round Three: Music ~ Music to Inspire our Children
The DPRK primarily has classical music. Mostly beautiful, but old Korean songs, with some European classical music as well. Their folk songs have lyrics that promote hard work, respect of women, study and taking care of the older generation. Not much else. Very old school.
The USA, well we have too much to choose from: Wheezy, Jeezy, Snoop Lion, Diddy, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy…well, you get the picture. And the lyrics..a great way for foreigners to study American English.
When a few DPRK youths asked me the best way to study American English, I just point them to the most popular hip-hop and rap albums and then an incredible website (www.gizoogle.net) that translates old-school English to something our modern youths understand much better. This is the very web site I use to communicate with my younger nieces and nephews these days.
For an example, the above paragraph I just wrote is translated by www.gizoogle.net as:
“When all dem DPRK youths axed mah crazy ass tha dopest way ta study Gangsta, I just point dem ta da most thugged-out ghettofab hip-hop n’ rap mixtapes n’ then a incredible joint (www.gizoogle.net) dat translates old-school Gangsta ta suttin’ our modern youths KNOW much mo’ betta n’ shit. This is tha straight-up wizzy joint I use ta communicate wit mah younger nieces n’ nephews these days.
Brilliant. Another win for the States.
Bonus Round: Basketball & Diplomacy ~ Sports/Politics and Children
During my time wandering around, I saw several pick-up basketball games with local kids and workers on the open courts of Pyongyang and Kaesong. Not a real hot bed of basketball talent.
However, in this bonus round, I say we play a 2-on-2 game with myself (6’2”) and Mr. Diplomat of the Year, Dennis Rodman (6’7”), and not only would we tower over those guys on the court, but Dennis could use his diplomatic skills and probably get them to hand over their “Air-Kim” basketball shoes as well.
Plus with a 15-course meal to share with Dennis’ new best friend Kim Jong-Un, I think the USA sweeps the series:
Strange, but given a choice between the USA educational system, crippled by tax cuts every year and getting worse, we soon may lose any advantage we have over such countries as the DPRK. It is very cliché, but “investing in education is investing in our future.”
Of course, there is no competition when it comes to intellectual freedom – and for that all Americans should be proud. We just need to make sure that we give enough resources to at least create a base for our children’s intellect.
FYI: one bizarre but brilliant educational plan for children, is sending them to a children’s summer camp in the DPRK. Being an American, my first thought of course was to combine this with a reality show of American kids visiting the DPRK. The summer camp program for international children is sponsored in part by our 51st state Canada (kidding). Information can be found at: http://www.pyongyangproject.org/ .
Posted on July 6, 2013
What is the feeling of receiving a genuine smile from a stranger, where the eyes light up and there is no mistaking the emotions of wonderment, curiosity and delight?
A watershed moment in the DPRK. It is strange, it was one of those off-chance smiles from a local walking along the street with nothing particular happening. A spur of the moment release of joy and wonderment as with all smiles, but it also contained a little more – something that could bridge two very different cultures. If there were a photograph that could do it justice, it would be the greatest photo ever taken.
Beautiful moments and smiles can certainly be photographed. Everyday, many tremendous smiles are photographed around the world with children the greatest source; from pure minds come pure smiles. Capturing the glory of such photos usually happens within a friendly atmosphere, and a camera is a mere afterthought. Photos to be treasured.
In an environment where there is no such familiarity and warmth, it is difficult.
There in lies the rub, the introduction of a camera steals a bit of the purity away from the spell. The shots are still admirable, but the sparkle in the eyes may lose some of its mystical glow.
Why I mention this is that while I have photographed nice smiles of people and children in the DPRK, nothing could match the off-chance reactions of first ‘the glance’ followed by ‘a glimmer in the eye’ and finally a ‘world-winning smile’ of a local worker we passed by on the streets. If I had to describe such a smile, picture the Mona Lisa breaking out in laughter after Da Vinci told her a racy joke…that type of electricity.
There is nothing I have that can come close to such expressions.
It took a few days in the DPRK for these “watershed moments” to arrive, all of which have taken me by surprise. In my previous posts, I have mentioned several times that there is a forced stoic look on just about everyone – a veneer that upon arrival seemed impossible to penetrate. Coming from places where smiles are common (China and the USA), this was a strange thing to witness.
On the DPRK streets it may be that it is not easy to express ‘friendship’ or ‘happiness’ with the locals because of the barriers I have touched on in earlier posts. Nevertheless, after a few of these sincere smiles, I wonder if this has as much to do with myself as with them.
The theory being that my unconscious biases and expectations I had when I arrived in the DPRK were getting in the way and it took a bit of time to unconsciously wipe away the ‘built-in’ negativity and realize we are all human with similar emotions, albeit with a vast abyss separating the cultures.
There was a post by a fellow blogger Jessica last year that touched on such a thought: http://jesscy.com/2012/10/23/people-are-people/, a nice read.
Catching the eye, the gleam and then the smile…it is an easy way humans communicate. Conceivably, it is the most basic primitive instinct that humans not only still have engrained in their genetics, but a primitive instinct that still serves the very same purpose from our beginning: to demonstrate there is no animosity, nothing to be feared and most importantly, friendship.
While I still think ‘free expression’ is somewhat rare in the DPRK compared to other countries, it is here in some form. Being in the DPRK has heighten my awareness, so it possible that the fact of just being here in this country makes a ‘simple form of self-expression’ seem more dramatic.
If this is the case, then it just serves as a reminder that a smile is a mutual sharing of joy that can make any day a little bit better. If such smiles are unexpected, then it is something I believe we can all relate with, knowing it is a bit more special. Something so simple that can brighten the day is priceless.
Sunset in the DPRK…Surprising and as Beautiful as a Smile
When I first had this watershed moment, I thought that it was a singular event, even when followed by a few more the following day. Uplifting. In the afternoon as we visited a local brewery, and over a few mugs of the local brew, this very topic came up and the table turned electric with varying stories of connections. Each story containing one common thread: everyone had been hit in some form by a genuine smile. Simple and sweet.
My theory regarding this, is that it takes two to tango. Being a little shell-shocked on arrival, it was difficult to have been on the same plane of understanding with our Korean brethren. Be it culture shock or an unconscious bias.
Then again, perhaps not and it is the local brew doing the talking – never a bad thing at least until the morning after.
Regardless, joyous smiles from the heart are universal.
The revelation of such a simple act and connection with people confirms that we are all home. Regardless of where we are in our travels, good people are everywhere.
If there is a highlight of the trip regarding the sites we have visited, the children’s activity center (Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace) and the performances afterwards would rank at or near the top. Still, I think that while the children’s smiles are incredibly special, the rare genuine smiles surprisingly received on the streets are the ones that I will always remember.
As for the children’s activity center, an amazing place filled with the magic of children and their ability to bring hope & smiles to us now and in the future.
Daoist philosophy explains the essence of children very well: a goal to ‘return to the mind of a child.’ The purpose being the mind of a child holds clarity and purity. The child’s mind is closely connected to nature, not yet encumbered by the biases and cynicism that we collect as we move on in life. If we can capture this essence, we can achieve a sense of self. Unfortunately, as an adult, it is a place we can never return. Sigh, at least we do get to enjoy the innocent wisdom of children before watching them grow up like us, into grouchy, cynical adults…(kidding of course).
If you ever want to understand what is the epitome of happiness, watch a child at play when they are impervious to everything around them except the joy of laughter.
I hope the photos in this post prove to be a better messenger than the scrambled set of words I have already laid out.
It occurs to me that while I describe the watershed moment as a breakout, I suppose the moment was slowly building. Traveling to a new area and a new culture can expose the soul to incredibly different customs and it takes time to get acquainted with the place. To understand its ambiance.
An old friend of mine once told me: “Travel, because when you teach your soul to accept new surroundings, you become more human and more compassionate towards the world. So go out and live in it fully.” At the time, he was simply talking about the different cultures you find in one city. It is important to explore.
With a few days under the belt, the DPRK has began to feel more human and, shockingly, a place I could definitely spend a fair amount of time to experience and learn more of their culture and the people. While it still remains distant from any society I have lived or experienced, I guess it is the potential that has me feeling optimistic. It all falls back to that watershed moment.
As I think back to my first response to seeing people on the streets, watching them with a stoic veneer that seemed to be plastered on their face as they looked straight ahead, I thought that nothing could break through this frozen barrier. Soldiers of a continuing Cold War.
Looking back, though, I should have seen the positives and great character right away. My first experience to the personalities of the North Koreans was brought about by our guide (Ms. Kim), who was incredibly quick-witted.
What surprised me was how very quick she was to become wary of my wit. Her hilarious replies and rebuttal for any smart comment I made often left me stammering for an answer, and the group in laughter. She become a highlight of the trip herself…really a great personality.
It sounds foolish now, but I did not think such a personality could exist in the DPRK. In all likelihood, I think I may have even thought such genuine smiles were impossible as well. Where did these biases come from…?
As for Ms. Kim, while we were at the Schoolchildren’s Palace (activity center), I did create a little stress for her as I got “disassociated” with the group and did a little exploring and met up with some great kids. I think the students were as shocked as I was running into each other, and after their laughter at my horrible Korean, one of them broke into English.
It was simple small talk about where we were from, what we did and then description of classes and whether or not I was going to attend the performance that was just about to take place. A couple of teachers came over to listen and enjoyed the conversation, although each of them looked at each other as if to say “where the hell did he come from?!?” Again, simple and sweet.
However, when I did make it back to the group, I was warned that Ms. Kim was quite stressed, and the scolding I took confirmed this… even though both her and the group enjoyed the critique of my troublesomeness.
As for the activity center, it was a lively and beautiful place where children studied extra-curricular activities such as ballet, musical instruments, and craft works. It was difficult to say what was more inspiring – the art that was created, or the children who were putting their time into learning such skills.
Travel rarely disappoints, for if you allow and seek it out, at some level there will be a connection with the locals along with a new set of experiences. Experiences that can diversify the path you’re on and be incorporated into new dreams. The experience may be a trip across town to a new ethnic restaurant, into another community or a different country. A place where the mind and soul opens up to new ideas and adventure.
In regards to the DPRK, I am still disappointed with the politics that surrounds the country, but it feels strangely irrelevant compared to the past two days, as the beauty of its people overshadowed the politics. The warmth of the smiles and the understanding that we are all a part of this adventure together has been the true highlight.
Posted on July 3, 2013
Standing beside a small garden, a simple scene transforms into a moment that will never be forgotten. A heart-warming conversation between a mother and her child as they laugh and happily correct the very rudimentary Korean they heard (a simple ‘hello’). Their smiles and eyes communicate more than words ever could as they look towards this ‘big nose’ foreigner, giggling again as they helpfully pronounce 안녕하십니가 “annyeong-hashipnikka.” As their smiles broaden, slowly the camera moves upwards hoping to capture a bit of this magic, then “pow” just like that the scene changes. All is “Lost in Translation.”
The giggles stop. The child runs and the mother turns away in shock from the camera. And I am left standing wishing I could speak a bit more Korean than a poor “hello.” Putting the camera down, the conversation slowly picks up again and this time I leave the camera alone and they once again become engaged in correcting my Korean.
When traveling in foreign countries, there always seems to be a limiting factor when shooting and I have always referred to this as “shooting on a leash.” Generally, the term leash is metaphorical, primarily due to the lack of language skills that can limit the quality of photography, however it also can be literal in meaning where there are physical barriers that prohibit the chasing of a photo opportunity as well.
Shooting in the DPRK, I am experiencing a frustratingly large mixture of both.
This is not abject criticism, as every time I travel and shoot there are barriers. It is what makes capturing a good photo rewarding, and usually a good photographer can break through some of the basic communication issues with the locals and, if only for a few minutes (or if lucky, a few hours), become a small part of their day.
Language constraints are usually a common barrier when traveling, so I cannot make any real complaint of not being able to reach out to the locals…except that here, it is not easy. There is an undercurrent of tension, with both the locals and foreigners not quite sure what is allowable and what is not. One thing that does seem clear, foreigners and locals should not mix, and it is best to remain at arm’s length.
Of course, I had to be reminded of this a few times after straying a bit too close to the opposite “side” below…
The reason for the ‘physical leash’ appears to be pretty straightforward: distrust. The DPRK government is well aware of idiots who have used benign footage to twist and create sensationalist reports (e.g., John Sweeney and the Panorama team at the BBC…which I hope to address later), and therefore there is a greater tendency to restrict photographers.
Unfortunately, “they” restrict without really knowing the implication of such restrictions…more criticism from the west. It would seem that if the DPRK government would allow greater access and freedom with the local population, both sides would benefit. Granted, it would be a scary first step for the Kim regime, but I would guess that it would win favors domestically and internationally.
Unfortunately, no such changes are on the immediate horizon and the last thing our guide needs, already with a difficult job, is pressure from above that they allowed unfettered access when it is not allowed. I understand and do accept these terms…as there is still much to be seen, and focusing on the positive results in happiness (and better photos).
Given what I have just written, what is most frustrating, though, are the moments where it does not take much imagination to see a local ‘Pyongyang-ian’ accepting an invite to sit down over a coffee, tea or smoke and discuss life; to understand what lies within their realm, as well as to understand what lies beyond.
That is what I want. That is what I miss.
These political walls of distrust between “us” and “them” are getting smaller, and the access to understanding life in the DPRK is not as difficult as I had imagined. It is inspirational when such moments do arrive, even if it is just for a flicker of an instance.
Most photographers enjoy capturing emotions, to explore the lighting and natural setting that together helps to answer the question “why?” Finding great people by following the flow of the day is wonderful. While somewhat of a futile battle to expect this much in the DPRK, I am not giving up hope as there were true flashes of brilliance in the eyes of many today.
Almost any internet search of photos taken in the DPRK will result in many monuments, statues and propaganda, all of which are fine and interesting, yet it starkly reveals a shortage in shots of the Korean people. I believe an unintended result of this is that it de-humanizes the DPRK population.
Why? Perhaps because the western media refuses to focus on the human aspect of the DPRK, but mainly because the DPRK makes this easy as they keep their population hidden from the world. The largest shock I have experienced in my few days in the DPRK is the wonderful, albeit somewhat stoic, Korean people.
Above: The Arch of Triumph and Below: Film Studio
Crap, I am starting to get political again…and I do not want to. Back to photography.
One of the great joys of ‘street photography’ is the intimate surrounding what a photographer can create. The additional back-story within shooting a scene helps create more interesting and unique photos. While the lack of language skills (and the political scene) makes this effort more difficult, there are still many bright moments.
When the leash is off, and a moment arrives where we can get close to locals…it is impossible not to get a little excited.
The first moment that we had some unfettered time with locals, was at one of the arts and crafts studios. As one of my friends joked, “I think they were as surprised as I was, when we both learned from each other that we did not have claws or maniacal stares as we were led to believe!” Both sides were getting a better taste of each other, and it was pleasant.
My first couple days, all I could think about were the locals and their very stoic faces. I wondered if they had been indoctrinated not to talk to foreigners (as we are the source of their troubles via sanctions and restricted trade).
It was at this art studio where the softer side began to come through. Artists tend to have more of an affinity for human connection, so perhaps that played into the scene and the connections started to click.
As our group worked their way through the studio, I pretty much trailed as doing so made it a bit easier to capture the personality of the artist and work. After the initial unease faded away of a group of foreigners stomping in, I hoped the artist would be more relaxed and open for a connection.
An example is with this painter. As I was carefully shooting, and mentioning a few things to the guide, he surprised both myself and the guide by shyly looking up occasionally and smiling, and finally said something that was translated as: “I hope you like my work, although this is just a simple work, if coming from the soul it can be beautiful.”
This made me feel great, although my poor American wit almost had me reply, “Did you mean coming from Seoul?” but thought better of it and instead I asked him about the colors and if such a beautiful landscape exists in the DPRK. Captain Hindsight agrees that this was the right tack to take.
The painter, and his comment and reactions, reminded me of an artist I knew in China. A great gentleman, and as such, it made this moment much more real. Very sincere.
There were three workshops visited: painting, pottery and embroidery. Each was very impressive, although it was impossible not wonder where the market was for these beautiful items. The answer I received when I asked the question was logical and concise: “they are sold or given as gifts.” It was a natural instinct to try to dig deeper into this reply, but realized the answer was perfect as it was.
The embroidery was amazing…and earlier, when visiting the National Gift Exhibition (gifts given to the Dear Leaders from provinces around the DPRK), on display were some of the most remarkable pieces of embroidery I have ever seen.
The outside of the National Gift Exhibition was very dreary, but it hid some great wonders of work created by Koreans around the country.
On the above photo, one thing that I never really got use to was the pins that everyone wore on the right hand side of their shirts, depicting their ‘Dear Leaders.’ One discussion one night with my traveling companions, we wondered if they truly felt such a genuine emotions for their Great Leaders (a cultish feeling) that wearing the pins were extremely important, or if they were just part of a habit of everyday life and not too much thought went into pinning them on.
I will try to find out as this trip moves forward.
One of the more interesting part of the art studio, was the ceramics and pottery section. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a potter (ended up working for Gladding, McBean in California on Franciscan ware), and while I wish I had a creative pottery gene in me, I have tried & tried again, but I’m all thumbs.
As the workers practiced their craft, it seemed as it they were in a zone. Very deep in thought, which is why their work was impressive. Yet, it made asking any questions risky, as the last thing you’d want to do is break into their work rhythm.
Later, our guide was disappointed that I hadn’t ask more about pottery, as she too really enjoyed pottery but laughed and said all she could make was a warped plate. I told her all I could make an ashtray…take a ball of clay, slam my fist into it and, voilà, an ashtray.
The other area that shined was the visit to the Pyongyang subway. Granted, it was clear that all foreigners taken to the subway would be herded to the best stations and would ride the best cars (part of the leash again), but still an experience.
On the subway platforms, there was one item that impressed the most and it was the ‘reading stations’ that were set up: a simple newsstand that held eight pages of news that could be read by the local population.
It was an iconic sight, as almost every Communist fueled government that existed at some point had such reading stations, so seeing it here was somehow reassuring. In the 1990s, during my first travel to China, such stations were common everywhere on the streets, and even today they play an important part of everyday use.
Very simple yet majestic.
One reason many Chinese come to the DPRK is to experience a culture that has very similar ties to China’s history under Mao. Throughout the visit to the DPRK, many Chinese were amazed at how similar the society of the DPRK of today resembled “China from 30 years ago…”.
Such thought can give people hope, because tied to these descriptions of the current DPRK society is the idea that the DPRK will evolve sooner rather than later. It is a good bet that China will give Kim Jong Un some very good advice how to transition his totalitarian government into something more transparent with ‘capitalistic’ tendencies.
As for these specific photographs of the reading posts, one man stood out among the rest, as he appeared well read and also appeared, pun intended, as well “Red”, the perfect communist intellectual. As to why he emitted such a feeling, I do not know. Later in discussions with others about Red, they did not see anything special with this person. That is part of mystery and power of photography. It can tell a story from the shooters point-of-view which may makes zero sense from the viewers point-of-view (and vice-versa).
Similar to the way “we” view a certain aspect of the world versus the way “they” view a certain aspect of the world. The ‘correct view’ may be very relative.
As for this man, now named Red, under any other circumstance a street photographer/journalist would be tempted to say hello and ask “what’s in the news today?” and have the conversation carry on from there.
Instead, due to a lack of language and a difficult environment, I took a different route and stepped back and began snapping photographs. It would have been possible to engage the man, and it could have been a wonderful conversation – or a disappointing rebuff. I will never know, as I took the most convenient way out.
Sometimes it is good to push the envelope a bit, and sometimes it is not. Similar, I suppose, to how politics works, when an uncomfortable situation arises…what is the easiest way out? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
One aspect of photography, and any profession I would guess, is that those who keep their emotions in check and move deftly within new environments tend to get the best results.
Regrettably, this was not me on this trip, as I was wondering around with my eyes gleaming and jaw dropped, trying to take in all that was around. There was electricity in the air every day, and it was difficult for me not to just bounce around freely and enjoy the surroundings. This led me to wonder how the population in Pyongyang thought of us foreigners walking around with intrigue permeating from our every breath as we took in the sights of the DPRK culture?
Perhaps sharing similar thoughts as…
No matter where in the world, I am finding out that the hearts of genuine people are everywhere, and long to be touched.
As for Pyongyang, there is a feeling of strangeness just about everywhere (it is the Hermit Kingdom after all), but it also has many great similarities of cities in Asia. It is a city with a beat and culture all its own (the strangeness), but also a city with infrastructure, rush hour, cars and buses that give it the same feel as other cities. It is these very aspects of similarities that also accentuate the largest difference that sets Pyongyang apart: there are fewer people involved.
This attracts me. There are no large crowds, no great hustle and bustle…just life. Just a population waiting for a great spring day when they can all come out in full bloom. And hopefully I will be there, sitting at a coffee shop with a local “Pyongyangian” discussing life and what lies within and outside our realms of understanding.