The forbidden pictures

Photos of everyday North Korean life

Photo by Bryan Hughes

Publisher Evelyn de Regt went in search of photographers who managed to capture the real life of North Korea.

Weird fact: In North Korea, it´s common, in real life, to see people asleep; according to Evelyn de Regt, it’s because the food is poor. “And the days are long and sometimes they have to work even harder, like when there’s a ‘150 days of hard work’ campaign.”

De Regt compiled the book North Korea: Glimpses of Daily Life in the DPRK, which contains 350 photographs no one was actually allowed to take, ranging from pictures of school classes practising for the parades to labourers in the country, carrying rocks to build a road by hand.: sleeping soldiers and homeless children, a tractor with a flat tyre and tiny, muddy impromptu black markets. A selection of the pictures is on display in the Kamerlingh Onnes Building.

De Regt got back from her holiday in North Korea and started looking for books about the country; however, all she found was propaganda. There was nothing that showed how its people really lived. “People who have been there are often so impressed by all the parades and monuments that they only take pictures of that. There just weren’t any photographs of other things.”

Besides, tourists don’t get to see everything. “Tourists go on a standard tour”, she explains. “You can’t just walk out of your hotel, and if you’re an official photographer, they supervise you even more than ordinary tourists. Floortje Dessing, a Dutch television presenter, made a documentary about it a few years ago and she was watched all the time, so the documentary revealed absolutely nothing of North Korea.”

De Regt wanted to collect as many photographs of ordinary life in North Korea as possible. “That includes rehearsing the rallies – you have to realise how many hours a week they must spend on rehearsals and meetings. Somewhere near Pyongyang, a square has been reproduced so school children can go there to rehearse.”
She found the pictures she wanted on Flickr, the photographers’ platform, although it sometimes took her months to trace the photographers. “The person whose pictures revealed the most, Martin Tutsch, used a pseudonym. He spent some time working in North Korea and was allowed to travel around on his own – that’s how he managed to reach places tourists never go, but even he was not allowed to go everywhere”, she adds. “The north is where the arms industry is located and there are terrible mines and camps there too. Absolutely nobody is allowed up there.”

Another photographer, Joseph Ferris, used to be a guide for Young Pioneer Tours, the same organisation that supervised Otto Warmbier, whose holiday took a dramatic turn. The American, now aged 22, was condemned to fifteen years of hard labour for stealing a propaganda poster.

Although you are not allowed to take photographs, De Regt claims that no photographers have ever been sent to jail. However, Eric Lafforgue, a professional travel photographer from France, has been denied entry to the country. “The official reason is that he took pictures of the subway’s escape routes. It’s nonsense, of course. He added some critical comments to his pictures, which probably has something to do with it.”

Dissident was banned

Jang Jin-Sung, a well-known North Korean dissident, was originally also invited to contribute to the book. But when the other photographers threatened to pull themselves from the publication, for fear of not being able to re-enter North Korea if their name was associated with someone so high on North Koreas blacklist, Publisher Evelyn de Regt made the call and decided not to include Jang.

Korean Studies professor Remco Breuker, who facilitated the contact between Jang and the publisher, is not happy. He says Jang was willing to provide unpublished pictures of less pleasant sides of North Korean society. ‘Like death camps and public executions, which are also a part of daily life there, besides soldiers sleeping in hay’.

De Regt says she would have loved to work with Jang, but that her decision was also practical. She had already collected the pictures from the other photographers, but not from Jang, she explains.

‘In my experience, what you are promised is not always what you get, so I decided to go with what I had’.

North Korea: Glimpses of Daily Life in the DPRK. Primavera Pers, € 39.95. Some of the photographs are currently on display in the Kamerlingh Onnes Building, Steenschuur 25.

Anoushka Kloosterman

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