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Reality on a Need-to-Know Basis

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A woman looks up at the end of a opening ceremony for a statue unveiling at Mansu Hill in April 2012. The sky was smoke-filled after fireworks were lit.

North Korea has long been one of the world’s most isolated places, but Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder has been visiting the country regularly since 2008 and helped establish an AP bureau in Pyongyang in 2012. As Guttenfelder says, “I’ve covered global stories where foreign photographers are everywhere. But in North Korea I’m usually the only one … In a world where nearly everything has already been photographed, it has become my job to reveal what it’s like inside this closed society.”

Since the introduction of 3G network service for mobile devices in North Korea this year, Guttenfelder has been uploading his images on Instagram, later including video on his feed. Click any of the still images or videos below to see details, and keep reading for Guttenfelder’s thoughts on using Instagram as part of his storytelling repertoire.

“Instagram is an immediate way to communicate. Each image may not be iconic, may only be a little detail, but they’re simple pieces of a bigger puzzle—it’s more about the sum of all the parts. When you add it all up, you get a sense of the place and the people. First I had to decide whether to choose Instagram over shooting with a regular camera. Now I have this further distinction, whether to go with stills or video. At 15 seconds, an Instagram video is almost more like a shifting still—in between a still and a video. I can open a window to our other senses. For me it’s the sound even more than the motion. It feels less permanent than a still image but can feel more real.

“The artifacts are funny but serious. They’re little objects that people use or make to represent their country to the outside world. They can say a lot. I’ve been picking them up starting as early as my first trip in 2000, like keepsakes for a scrapbook, and now I’m sharing them [via Instagram]. I feel like an archaeologist.

“For so long, the only glimpses we had of North Korea were from propaganda. This is a country with a preconceived idea of what I should show and even where I should stand. It’s so restrictive that the more tools I can use and the more I can attack a subject from different angles, the better. After 60 years, we finally have the power to see for ourselves.”

Follow David Guttenfelder on Instagram and on his website.

Elizabeth Cheng Krist’s favorite kind of excursion is visiting museums and galleries to see more photography, especially in New York. She also loves to take long walks in new cities while traveling overseas. She has visited North Korea, but never saw a city or a museum there, so hopes to return.

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