Even by North Korean standards, the final event of the country’s 70th-anniversary celebration in 2018 was a jaw-dropping spectacle. Many thousands of torch-wielding students marched in waves around Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square. The electric flame on top of Juche Tower glowed while the sound of the students’ chants and the fireworks’ explosions echoed across the immense plaza.
These mass displays have happened often over the 20 years I’ve spent covering North Korea. I photograph them not only because they’re very visual but also because they offer a way to understand the image that the regime wants to project to the world. They present an idealized version of the country—sanitized, curated, united, strong.
North Koreans expect photographers to be purposeful propagandists, not photojournalists with a critical eye. That makes working in North Korea as a foreign photojournalist a challenge. While there, I’m always accompanied by a government-appointed guide whose job is to facilitate my visit and monitor my movements.
On my first trips it seemed that North Koreans expected that a photographer like me, from the adversarial United States, would judge them unfairly, deliberately taking photographs to make them look bad. They closely watched what I was doing. The intense scrutiny led me to be more improvisational with my camera to capture more authentic moments. Often I took photos on the fly, shooting from the hip or from the windows of a bus or car on my way to or from scheduled events. The most interesting pictures—the ones that were candid and real—simply showed regular people doing regular things. And this type of photography eventually allowed me to open a small window into the everyday lives of North Koreans.
I believe that over time the guides I worked with began to understand what I was trying to do: give a fair and honest look at their country, however unvarnished, however gritty. I was searching for the universal, for everyday life, for real people with real lives worthy of understanding.
Traveling to North Korea as a photographer is even more difficult now than in past years. In 2017 the United States banned travel to the country for U.S. passport holders. When I visited as a journalist to cover the anniversary celebrations a year later, I needed special authorization from the State Department, which issued me a single-use passport to enter. Once I was inside the country for the events, I was confined with other foreign journalists to the area of Pyongyang around the square. Behind me, row upon row of uniformed officers sat on risers. In front of me, the students carried glowing flames and marched.
The images I made during that visit are the kind Westerners have come to expect from North Korea, but to understand the country, we need to get beyond them.
When I look at these photographs now, I think of the people through the years who told me about taking part in grand shows when they were students—who described the experience as an exciting rite of passage in their lives—and I remember that behind the most extravagant spectacles are ordinary people.