The DPRK ~ Shooting in Pyongyang

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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.

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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…

Grand People's Study House

Grand People’s Study House

Grand People's Study House

Grand People’s Study House

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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).

Workers on a Break (Tennis in background)

Workers on a Break (Tennis in background)

Tennis Break at Lunch

Tennis Break at Lunch

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.

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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.

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Above: The Arch of Triumph and Below: Film Studio

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

  • “What are their lives like?”
  • “What will the future have in store for us all down the road?”
  • “What would happen if I asked them to sit and chat over a cup of coffee?”

No matter where in the world, I am finding out that the hearts of genuine people are everywhere, and long to be touched.

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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.

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