Though in the news all the time so little is known about daily life in North Korea. Any insights on what happens in the totalitarian state is lapped up by the rest of the world – as reflected in our readers’ interest in a new book from Phaidon about graphic design in North Korea or the popularity of Vice’s 2013 documentary series about the country.
In August this year photographer Tariq Zaidi, who has previously documented the Wodaabe tribes of Chad and the eagle hunters of Mongolia, travelled to North Korea. He has come back with a beautiful series of images that shed some light on what the day-to-day looks like in the country.
We spoke to Zaidi about how the project came to be. North Korea had been on his mind for a few years, he says, “I met someone on my travels who had attended a beer festival in North Korea the previous year and told me that it was one of the few times where foreigners and locals can officially interact and relatively freely take photos. So, I decided to go to North Korea [to attend the beer festival] scheduled for August 2017.”
Any travel to North Korea requires official permission, a strict pre-planned itinerary and the company of two North Korean English speaking guides who stay with you every waking hour.
When Zaidi arrived, it turned out the beer festival was “indefinitely postponed” but the rest of his journey was already mapped out and went on as planned. He had to enter the country by train through China, where at the border his equipment was checked. Each person is allowed only one camera and two lenses. From the moment of entry, he was assigned minders and as long as he was in their company he was allowed to take photographs. There were places where he was told explicitly not to take pictures; these were usually areas with a military presence, national museums or mausoleums.
Zaidi wasn’t free to walk around by himself or interact with locals, so what he could photograph was already filtered in a sense. He felt like he was hurried from one location to the next, often not given enough time to frame his images and many of street scenes seen here were shot from moving vehicles.
Every once in a while, the minders would ask to look at his photographs and delete images they deemed inappropriate. Images he took were also reviewed at the end of each day and before he left the country. This must have been particularly disheartening for an artist: “There were lots of images I took at night at the amusement park in Pyongyang [which were deleted], a very surreal place to be in given the political situation in August 2017,” Zaidi recounts, “I also took a lot of portraits of North Korean people. I wish I had been allowed to keep these.” The minders didn’t object to him taking pictures of groups of people in the streets and going about their daily lives, but were opposed to individuals being photographed.
Despite the constant minding and censorship Zaidi says he didn’t at any point feel threatened or afraid for his personal safety. Interestingly, he says he didn’t find the experience of being in North Korea particularly exciting in the way documenting isolated tribes or traveling to remote frontiers of the world is. He wasn’t able to wander off into rural areas or explore bustling neighbourhoods where he was likely to encounter anything spontaneous or thrilling.
He is very aware that the images represent a curated version of reality, crafted particularly for the eyes of visitors. From what he was shown, Zaidi says the country feels like “a mix of old Cuba and Russia with the old East Germany thrown in – but a lot more orderly and cleaner.”