My best shot

‘She looked back, saw the rulers’ por­traits and knelt. “I can­not be higher than the lead­ers,” she said’

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

This shot was taken in a lit­tle theme park called Py­ongyang Folk­lore Park. They say that if you see the model build­ings from the sky they are in the shape of Korea – both Koreas – be­cause their big­gest de­sire is re­uni­fi­ca­tion. They don’t talk “South” and “North”.

Tourists are al­lowed to go there, but it’s so ob­scure there was hardly any­one around. The park might now be per­ma­nently closed be­cause Jang Songth­aek [the un­cle of leader Kim Jong-un] was ex­e­cuted. He was tak­ing care of it be­fore he died. It’s sort of his legacy.

They had a pre­his­toric part, a Mid­dle Ages sec­tion and a bronze age bit, then at the end they had a modern area with this model of the Grand Peo­ple’s Study House. Be­cause the place was empty I won­dered if it would be a wasted trip, then a wed­ding pro­ces­sion sud­denly came by. I wanted to take a photo of the bride and groom, but was told: “No, no, he’s a sol­dier.”

Then I saw a lady with a big pink hat and asked her to stand in front of the model build­ing. Be­fore I could ready the cam­era she looked back, saw the rulers’ por­traits and said: “I can­not be higher than the lead­ers.” She knelt and I took the photo. It was with a flash be­cause the nat­u­ral light was dis­gust­ing, but in the end it was my favourite shot from Py­ongyang.

She was so con­fi­dent and classy. A lit­tle lip­stick, a scarf – ev­ery­one there looks like they’re in a Wes An­der­son movie. In fact, the best part of the trip was see­ing that there are real peo­ple ev­ery­where. They want their kids to go to school, they want a good part­ner, they want to live in an apart­ment. No one tried to brain­wash me and no­body there re­ally hates Amer­i­cans, they just try to sur­vive in their en­vi­ron­ment. You can’t judge them by their leader.

It was 2014 and I was in North Korea for a project called 3DPRK, which ended up be­ing the first photo ex­hi­bi­tion by a for­eigner in Py­ongyang. I wanted to shoot as many in­ti­mate por­traits of nor­mal peo­ple as I could but we sold the con­cept as “pho­tos of tourist spots, pro­mot­ing tourism”. We would go for a tour, meet of­fi­cials, say, “Oh, it would be cool if we could do some­thing”, go home, come back and so on. It took eight months of that to get my trip ap­proved.

Most of the pho­tos you see from North Korea are stolen shots or sol­diers in pa­rades, which is what tourists and jour­nal­ists can get on tightly con­trolled tours. My tour was dif­fer­ent: we had a van and trav­elled all over the coun­try.

I was there for 10 days with two North Korean tour guides and a driver. I had a re­ally good rap­port with the guides – we got drunk to­gether and talked about fam­i­lies, re­la­tion­ships, sex – but there were three rules: don’t pho­to­graph army per­son­nel, don’t shoot con­struc­tion sites, and don’t crop stat­ues and pic­tures of the lead­ers. Ev­ery night they had to re­port what I was do­ing.

De­spite this, they didn’t check a sin­gle shot – no one did. The guides em­pha­sised how many times each leader had vis­ited a site, how fast it was built, how great it was. I was just nod­ding, nod­ding, nod­ding, while look­ing for ev­ery­day peo­ple to shoot. I had to be re­spect­ful and in­ter­ested. I played my game and they played theirs.

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