Faces of Pyongyang

By Ed Jones

PYONGYANG—Ask anyone to conjure up an image of North Korea and it would probably be of a mass military parade, with thousands of faces and feet moving in perfect sync.

Or it might be of a fleeting image captured surreptitiously from the window of a bus as unsuspecting subjects go about their day.

I have been traveling to North Korea since 2012 and both these scenarios feature regularly in the photos that I transmit when on assignment there, largely because the well-known  limitations placed on visiting foreign media severely limit any alternatives.

But since AFP formally opened a bureau in Pyongyang in September 2016, I’ve been thinking of ways to try to change that.

North Korean kids walk by portraits of the late leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. AFP
Access to people is an important facet of my photography. But it can be something of a challenge in North Korea. Approaching people on the street for interviews or taking candid photos outside of designated areas is generally frowned upon.

Requests to speak to or take photos of specific people generally need to be made through the two local AFP staff who accompany us at all times, and their efforts to secure permission meet with varying results.

I was keen to find a project that would produce interesting photos, without compromising journalistic integrity, and be a comfortable way of working for all involved.

The idea of a portrait series seemed a good solution that would involve the subjects themselves—a difficult proposition in North Korea where there is an inherent suspicion of foreign media.

As a photographer, I am driven by interactions with people, and for some reason—a lack of imagination perhaps—my pictures suffer without them. With a portrait series, I saw a way to create that interaction.

My video colleague and I decided on a routine whereby he would also shoot a short full-length video portrait as well as a close-up of the same subject reciting their name and occupation. It was important to capture the portraits as quickly as possible to retain an element of spontaneity, and the subjects were told where to stand, but not how to pose.

After the first few attempts, our local staff seemed increasingly taken by the whole idea and became more confident about approaching subjects, who were generally happy to participate. Initially we approached people who we felt were more likely to agree to have their photos taken, such as tour guides at the various monuments around Pyongyang that are easy to visit.

But we were quickly able to expand our approach to include others such as a young girl rollerblading on a public square followed by a ginseng farmer near Kaesong, and a soldier at Panmunjom, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

On many occasions it was not possible to gather more information about our subjects. Some were apprehensive about giving their names, while others were reluctant to state their occupation.

But despite the speed with which these portraits were taken and the reticence of most of those who agreed to pose, there was still a moment of intimacy involved—however brief—that felt authentic and unguarded.

Topics: Pyongyang , North Korea , photography , foreign media
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