Finding the ordinary amid North Korea’s extravagant propaganda displays

While working under constant supervision, this photographer learned to spot everyday life inside the isolated country.

North Korea puts on spectacular pageants with casts of thousands. Some participants describe them as exciting rites of passage.

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.

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