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 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.
Posted on June 28, 2013
The brink of peace? OK, perhaps it is just the absolute stillness of the night, the crisp fresh air (anything is fresh after a few days in Beijing) and a calm that penetrates the dark night that gives me this feeling of ‘peace’. Having just arrived in the DPRK, I am still in a bit of a bewildered state. [FYI: this will be a first in a series of posts written while in the DPRK last week].
I am not sure what to expect, as there does not seem to be anything restless with this calm, nothing but a sense of relaxation. Of course, being from the USA that immediately sets off alarms as we are taught early on that the DPRK is evil (actually an “axis of evil”), so there must be something dark and menacing out there, correct?!? The US media and government never distort the truth, do they? Regardless, my paperwork made it through and I have arrived (although no stamps in the passport…).
♬♪♬♪♫ Moonlight Over Pyongyang… ♬♪♬♪♫ Nice title for a song, and I’d love to be able to write something moving to celebrate the peace and tranquility that rests over this city tonight, and I assume every night. Being a bit ambitious, perhaps a symphony to capture the spirit of people, their hopes, loves and dreams that create such great places as Paris, Hong Kong, NYC and even Cairo. All places where people are allowed to have beautiful thoughts and dreams, and transform them into great works of art.
Why can’t Pyongyang and all of the DPRK one day provide the world with the same? Strange thoughts on my first night, as I admit I am quite skeptical of just about everything the DPRK could offer.
That said, flying into the DPRK and to the capital city of Pyongyang, I was pretty stunned by the beauty of the countryside. A blanket of green consisting of mountains, trees and farmland that left me wondering what was in store for the week as we descended into the city.
With only one evening in the DPRK under my belt, I’m not sure I am qualified to attempt any such eloquence as song or poetry. Perhaps on my way out of the country, inspiration will hit and I can try out my talents on DPRK Immigration officials. For now, the only thing I can offer are my expectations coming in.
Expectations are easy. As I mentioned, I am American and we are pretty much programmed to expect a brutal regime where its citizens will look upon us with some disgust. These days, internationally, that may be par for the course as the US government makes Americans easy targets in the international community. While discomforting, it does emphasize why I love the USA all the more, as freedom should never be taken for granted and understanding the good along with being able to speak freely of the bad makes a true patriot.
Of course, growing more cynical as I get older, I trust all media (and governments) about as much as I trust the Pyongyang Times… A wonderful paper, if you like pure propaganda at its flowery best (it gives the old China Daily of the 90s a run for its money). Something to think about: propaganda machines are just about everywhere (FOX news, CNBC, Pyongyang Times, etc.), whipping up stories with sensationalism to back a belief they want to be taken as fact. Difference here, in the West we have a few more choices and resources to find the truth for ourselves.
Funny thing about the Pyongyang times, in the DPRK a photo or image of the great leader (Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un) must be treated with “great respect.” What does this mean? Well, for example, the copy of the Pyongyang Times that I received on the plane should not be folded in half as it would create a crease on the leader’s face.
The newspaper we were given on the plane were given to us flat, so when it came to putting the paper away, the only way to get around this was to fold the paper in thirds. Pretty easy solution, except when I went to read the inside pages, I had severely creased all the other photos of the “great leaders” on those pages…which upon viewing, the person sitting next to me joked “We’ll see you again in about 10 years when you’re released…” Sometimes, there is just no way out.
Also, another great piece of info to pass on: throwing a newspaper away with the photo of one of the great leaders on the cover is disrespectful as well…so I suppose you will forever see me holding a “folded-in-thirds” Pyongyang Times from here on out.
One person said upon hearing this: “where the heck do they put all the old papers if they can’t throw them away?!?” Good question.
So as I look out onto Pyongyang, I wish for some solitary music, something to catch the spirit of this place. I come up empty. Rather, I can imagine a deep, somber beat of footsteps trudging onwards playing in my mind…music to represent the worry about the life their children may have: uneasiness, with little opportunity for expression. Perhaps it is this silence that I am hearing. Silence like this tends to make men and women fight to create a better tomorrow…although I expect if I mentioned this to one of our guides, they would say “Of course, that is what happened on June 25th, 1950 and we achieve this goal.”
While I have had very little time to get a feel for the DPRK, it does not take a sociologist to understand that there is a chasm between “us” and “them”. A very stoic society, and with all this deification of their Dear Leaders blazing from almost every building and being pushed onto the local population…can they even grasp what “the real world” is like?
With the rain coming down as we came in, I did not see many people out and about, so the quiet, greying weather perfectly matched my expectations on what I would see in Pyongyang. A dull, grey machine that does not have any noticeable human parts. Not to be trivial, but the DPRK does not have the best PR in the States. Whether my feelings will change after a week, who knows? It will be fun to see how I picture this place after a few days, and hopefully the weather will pick up.
As for our hotel, it is actually pretty brilliant. Fills every expectation of a pre-80s Soviet/Communist Hotel: dated, but solid and with a little bit of intrigue. We are staying on Yanggak Island at the Yanggakdo Hotel, also know as the Alcatraz of Fun (via the Lonely Planet guide-book) as foreigners are allowed free rein on the island, just don’t think of leaving the island on your own. Hotel California may be a better name.
Ryugyong Hotel – Still Under Construction
It would have been great to have had the opportunity to stay at the above pictured monstrous Ryugyong Hotel, which pretty much dominates the Pyongyang skyline (the largest building), yet after 36 years since construction began, it is still unfinished. I believe that falls into the category of “white elephant.” It does serve as an example of how the fall of the USSR hit the DPRK hard, crippling its economy and stopping all major construction. Not sure what its future will be, but there are still discussions of the Ryugyong becoming perhaps another ‘Hotel California’, an enclosed enclave for foreign guests.
As for now, I sit at my Yanggakdo Hotel window very tired and smugly admiring my Canon 70-200mm lens. I say “smugly” because technically it is illegal to bring a 200mm lens into the DPRK…nothing like being a little bit of a rebel. Although, truth be told, the worst that could have happened is they would have taken the lens and held it until I exited the country, and I brought the lens specifically as I heard that DPRK customs have been flexible with foreigners bringing in a 200mm lens (I am not that brave, especially with my camera equipment).
As one of my good friends told me: “taking your 200mm lens that is technically illegal to bring into the DPRK…yeah, I can see this is going to be an eventful trip for you…” My final shots of the first day:
Looking west of the Taedong River (right hand side), you have the Juche Tower in its nighttime glory (along with the lights of the Workers Monument and May Day Stadium).
Looking east of the Taedong River (left hand side), you have the Folklore Museum, Kim Il Sung Square, Mansudae Theater and Pyongyang Pavilion and department store.
I would like to imagine that in those well-lit areas of the night, the streets are teeming with people strolling, kids playing and lovers dreaming…but the silence I hear outside makes this thought far-fetched. So the symphony I wish to compose will just lay in my head, waiting for another day. I heard there is karaoke, a casino and bowling alley in the basement of the hotel, so I just may head there instead…