This story appears in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
There are 25 million people in North Korea, but the only visible portraits are of its leaders. Regular people are rarely photographed unless they are in a large group—even on their wedding day.
In 2017 French photographer Stéphan Gladieu went to North Korea to discover its citizens’ individuality. At factories and farms the cleanest workers were trotted out for him. “In a country where ‘individuals’ don’t exist, I was doing something crazy by asking people to stand alone,” says Gladieu. He was repeatedly reminded of this by his minders, who chose the facilities he visited. He picked his subjects—though sometimes the minders would argue the person was too ugly, old, or unkempt.
Taken alone, each portrait could look like smiling propaganda for the authoritarian regime. Together, they have an unsettling uniformity. The subversion is in this repetition, he says. Even standing next to him, his guides didn’t understand what he was doing. “They could never see what I saw,” says Gladieu. “They’re so far away, in a different world.”