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A rare look at daily life in North Korea

Fabian Muir-9

The Hands That Rock the Cradle. We tend to see a “classic” media narrative on North Korea. These children sitting under the Leaders’ portraits in the playroom of a provincial orphanage go with it well.

Fabian Muir

Six Swans. There are many sides to North Korea and the place is not without color. Here, perfect order is maintained in the gardens of the “Kumsusan Palace of the Sun” in Pyongyang. The complex houses the mausolea of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and is the holy of holies for North Koreans. The first time I visit, in deep winter, it was one of the only heated indoor spaces in the capital.

Prior to his first visit to North Korea back in 2014, the semi-nomadic Australian photographer Fabian Muir’s preconceptions were much the same as everybody else’s; it’s difficult to disassociate the country from its leaders, missile tests, prisons, military parades, the famine of the 1990s or “notions of robotic factory workers who never smile”, emphasizes Fabian.

Unsurprising, given that these are the components that receive the most coverage on mainstream media. North Korea is one of the most repressive countries in the world, and yet there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the lives of ordinary people. Traveling across the country, the normality of existence among North Korean individuals defied the artist’s initial expectations, as he encountered what he perceived to be genuine humor and warmth from those he met. Fabian returned to North Korea fives times in the following two years, hopeful that he might be able to present another side of the country, capturing his impression of actual contemporary life on the ground across all seasons in his series The North Koreans. “The real story is much more layered”, the photographer asserts.

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Our Man in Pyongyang. Actors in Pyongyang Film Studios prepare to shoot the interrogation of a South Korean spy for a show named “Battlefront.” Local television broadcasts a lot of conflict, and the foes in such productions are typically Japan, the US or South Korea.

How were you able to gain access as a photographer and where your principal shooting locations?
“Access is simpler than people generally assume, provided you’re not a journalist. Totally independent travel there is not permitted (meaning you will always have government guides accompanying you), so anyone wishing to go to North Korea will have to go on a tour or some kind, either alone or in a group. You apply to a third party operator, who will screen you, then forward your application to the North Koreans for further screening. It’s impossible to say what this really entails beyond putting your name into Google. Negotiating the itinerary is quite a process, and if you don’t want to end up visiting exactly the same things everyone else does, you need to do research and be clear in your own mind about what you wish to see. Not everything you request will work out. I never encountered any problems gaining access, even with repeated visits over a relatively short period of two years.

I’ve visited too many places to list exhaustively, but if you look at a map and see I’ve been by land from Sinuiju to Nampo to Hamhung to Wonsan to Chongjin to Hoeryong, to name a few, you’ll notice it covers quite some territory. In that regard, I’d say that travelling as extensively as one can outside Pyongyang is critical to gaining a deeper insight into the country, since Pyongyang is very much its own entity. I have seen a lot of photo essays that are entitled ‘North Korea’ but show nothing but pictures of Pyongyang, which is like calling a series on Shanghai ‘China’.

My work took me to schools, orphanages, factories, collective farms, health complexes, film studios (hence the ‘interrogation scene’ photo), amusement parks, museums, universities, private homes, pubs (the real deal, they love their beer), department stores etc., as well as various performances, some no doubt put together for visitors, but others in major urban theatres primarily intended for locals. They also take you to quite a few sites associated with the leaders (statues, mausolea, monuments, birth places, complexes housing gifts) or the war (DMZ, cemeteries, museums). I’ve also spent a lot of time simply walking around various urban environments, which can provide a lot of insight.”

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Blue Angel. A child performer goes through her routine in a Chongjin kindergarten. Gifted children in North Korea are trained in music and performance from a very early age. Such kindergarten shows are widespread and by no means staged merely for the benefit of occasional foreign visitors.

What did you observe during your time in North Korea and what distinguishes your series from others who have also been accompanied by a government guide?

“Prior to my first visit to North Korea, my preconceptions were much the same as anyone else who hasn’t been there, so I was surprised to observe people behaving and interacting quite normally, even as they live within a system that is obviously very much at odds with our own. This impression was strengthened with increasing exposure to North Korean individuals, since it turns out that they can be very friendly and kind, and even have a good sense of humour. (While some people seem to think that encounters with ‘decent’ North Koreans are specially set up by authorities, I’m confident based on my own experiences that this was not the case.)

I realised that there seemed to be relatively little material providing more intimate insights into ordinary life, with the majority of photo essays on North Korea looking very similar to one another and focusing on already familiar — and photographically irresistible — motifs, such as imposing architecture, Leader statues or parades. All of that is unquestionably part of North Korea’s fabric, but there are other, more basic sides that have been largely ignored, be it North Koreans hanging out at the beach, having a beer, or sitting through a power failure. I feel these sides are also relevant.”

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Wonsan Beach Study. In actuality, Wonsan is a genuine resort town for North Koreans, and other sections of the beach further down were far more crowded than in this image. Local hotels are more comfortable than elsewhere in the country and a large new airport was recently completed nearby, possibly indicating the regime’s desire to attract even foreign vacationers at some point in the future.

You mention that you are confident that much of what you witnessed and captured was not staged, what sort of experiences brought you to this conclusion?
“This comes down to gut feeling and filtering —  some things are staged, but I find you can sense that fairly easily. I was asked a similar question in another interview coming out soon, and mentioned by way of example a church service I saw in Pyongyang. The State says there are 10,000 Christians in the DPRK, and the service I suppose was meant as evidence of this, yet while everything looked perfect, right down to a choir with harps on their tunics, it felt like a performance to me. Maybe I was wrong, but it simply didn’t feel like the real deal. At the same time there is also censorship in the sense that they will generally show you the best examples of things — if they take you to a private dwelling in Pyongyang, it will belong to a top academic for example, or if they take you to a collective farm, it will be a shining example.

However you spend a lot of time walking around places plus I have travelled by land everywhere, so you can’t black out everything (nor do they try to for that matter — the guides talk quite openly about fuel shortages in the countryside, power issues and the famine in the 90s). I have a lot of pictures taken from trains or buses, which are clearly authentic. And the candid shots you get in public spaces simply can’t be staged since they are very spontaneous or have to be eked out at one’s own initiative. Sometimes there are hundreds of people around and the work required to set all of that up for one visitor would be quite unbelievable, so I think those people who have maintained, for example, that the entire Pyongyang metro runs solely for the benefit of the 5000 Western tourists who visit each year are slightly overblowing their own importance.
The thing is that most foreigners only go there once, their adrenaline is pumping and everything looks alien. With repeated visits, you’re calmer and North Korea also starts to feel less foreign since you begin to better understand how things work and even how people move. For example, small groups of people there have a remarkable habit of walking in synchronicity, and I can understand how that could strike a first-time visitor as odd and seem like some kind of set-up, but it’s simply just the way they are.”

 

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What challenges did you encounter as a photographer in North Korea?
“Probably the hardest part is that you’re rarely afforded the luxury of anticipation since you have your guides moving you along. In my normal practice I’m happy to sit around in one place for at least an hour hoping for a situation to come together if I think it will be worthwhile. Except for those very rare occasions where you are allowed to operate alone for a while (they do arise), photography in North Korea requires you to be on your toes and to react and compose shots very quickly. Contrary to most people’s assumptions (and myths perpetuated by some amateur photographers who have been there), the local guides almost never interfere with your photography, nor has anyone ever checked my pictures before leaving the country. There are rules that you can’t crop the leaders (e.g. their statues) and can’t take pictures of soldiers or labourers (who are often off-duty military), but other than that there are few restrictions anywhere except in the far north of the country.”

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Pink Lady. Like flora in a nature reserve, the North Korean design aesthetic has flourished largely free from outside influence—with often intriguing results. Here we see a traditional “hanbok” dress in Kyongsong, a tired yet tranquil spa town in the North Hamgyong province.

How did the individuals you photographed respond to you as a photographer?
“I don’t find North Koreans respond in a special way to someone wanting to take their photographs since they are quite snap-happy themselves (especially on their phones), so it’s not as if they have never seen a camera before. As with anywhere else, it comes down to how you approach them —  if you jump out and flash them à la Bruce Gilden they probably won’t be so thrilled, but if you’re friendly/polite and/or unobtrusive there’s no issue. Very occasionally they’ll actually ask to be photographed. In this regard it’s perhaps worth noting that there’s a popular urban myth that photography of locals by foreigners is prohibited, which is complete rubbish.”

What was the process involved in creating this series?
“My most basic rule of thumb was simply to try to capture the most candid possible situations while avoiding the most obvious photos. I’d ask myself ‘Have people seen this photo before?’ and if the answer was ‘yes’, I generally wouldn’t bother. With this approach, I’d like to think that many of my pictures are adding something new to the conversation.

At the same time, I think I was helped by the fact that North Korea often offers a very particular aesthetic, especially in terms of the lines and geometry, and this allows for a fairly consistent visual language across the work.”

What message do you hope to impart on viewers through these photographs?
“I’d like viewers to distinguish between street-level North Koreans and what we see on television. I’ve visited a lot of politically isolated nations and the constant message I get from these trips is that it’s far too simplistic to judge an entire population based on their country’s posturing on the world stage. Yet mainstream media has a habit of dehumanising people because it suits the political narrative. Iran is another good example of this — until recently it was a pariah state, yet people who travel there fast discover that it is home to some of the most hospitable and cultivated people you’re likely find anywhere. However you would never glean this from the reports you see on TV.”

What’s next for your project?
“I’m in the process of rolling it out now, so I’m in talks with various publications and there are positive indications of institutional exhibitions at home and abroad, although it’s too early to name names yet. I very much hope that there will be a book in it, and that will be one of the next major tasks. Needless to say the Magnum Photography Award for the edit entitled Intimate Perspectives on North Korea has given the work a much stronger position than I could have hoped for.”

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Into the Light. A holiday-maker exits the changing room at a beach near Wonsan on the east coast of the country. Wonsan was depicted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Orphan Master’s Son” as a faux retirement village in which the elderly are put to death once they can no longer serve the state. The reality here could not be more different, however.

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Lights Out. In the northern port city of Chongjin, a waitress has placed a battery-powered light on the table during a night-time power outage.. In contrast to Pyongyang, blackouts are a common occurrence in these parts, so much so that the customers barely seem to notice. They continue normally, quietly reading while drinking “makoli” rice wine.

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Number One Fan. This fan in a private home in outer Chilbo might also be wearing a hanbok of sorts. Such coverings are, in fact, a common feature in North Korean households. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the real point is that even if certain clichés might be true, North Korea is far more layered and surprising than one might expect.

All images © Fabian Muir

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