Two children walking along an empty street in Pyongyang © Aaron Joel Santos / Offset
Aaron Joel Santos: There’s something almost upsettingly benign about traveling in North Korea. It feels set up, like a stage in some very elaborate school play. The costumes and actors and lines and directions are all there, laid out for the people you come across. It’s a Ghost World, there through the fog of a window pane. Hidden behind several layers so you can barely make out what it is you’re looking at. It’s mysterious, of course, but it also plays into its own mysteries perfectly.
It’s almost as if, at times, it knows what travelers want out of it, and it obliges. It’s a strange place, and maybe all the more so because we can’t seem to get a grasp on it. It’s a slippery country. At times brutal and frightening and utterly evil, and in other instances, almost hokey and kitsch. But always with a kind of looming terror. Which is why I photographed it the way I did. Lost in that fog. Trying to depict this idea of ghosts haunting a city. A certain myopia and strangeness, something that couldn’t be quite seen or grasped or believed.
The United States government has a list, updated frequently to include all travel warnings to civilians, advising them on precarious situations in locations around the world. Some countries stay on the list for the blink of an eye; others remain for years. While the government cannot of course forbid us from visiting these countries, the list uses no uncertain terms: “We want you to know the risks of traveling to these places and to strongly consider not going to them at all.”
As of this writing, there are thirty-seven places on the Travel Warnings List. Reasons for issuing a warning range from civil war to limited protection by the US government. The Mali warning makes mention of recent terrorist attacks and criminal activity, and some of the remote areas of Algeria are also listed for potential terrorism and kidnappings.
The Iran Travel Warning cites religious tensions, unfair arrests, and “various elements in Iran that remain hostile to the United States.” Americans are warned against visiting parts of Tunisia along the border with Libya due to fear of terrorism. According to the list, North Korea poses a “serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, which imposes unduly harsh sentences, including for actions that in the United States would not be considered crimes.”
Although the government is quick to point out that “tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work,” it still makes the list because of crime-related violence. Armed robberies are mentioned in association with Venezuela.
Every one of these countries has a history that goes well beyond a number on the list. We wanted to ask some of our favorite Offset photographers who have spent time in these places to tell us their stories, candid tales about personal experiences. Their memories are their own and no one else’s, and they should by no means be understood to represent something general or universal, but they do illuminate sides of these countries that otherwise would remain invisible.
Yes, some of these stories are scary, but others are breathtakingly beautiful. None are what we expected.