By Nicholas Bonner
By Nicholas Bonner
In 2004, Koryo Tours’ founder Nicholas Bonner and British photographer Charlie Crane embarked on a project to produce a book featuring large-format portraits of Pyongyang’s public and cityscapes. The result, after three trips to the DPRK, would be the first art photography book on North Korea by a western photographer, and the book Welcome to Pyongyang was the winner of the British Journal of Photography International Prize, cited as “A revealing insight into the secretive state’s self-image”.
At that time no photographic books of the country produced overseas were available. The first fully DPRK-focused travel guide book, from Bradt, only came out in 2003 (Koryo Tours worked with the author on this project) and we had previously managed nothing on this scale of photographic production.
Pyongyang is one of those cities that exist only in technicolour: you get to see the imposing sweeps of Kim Il Sung Square and the smiling shop assistants posing in Pyongyang #1 Department Store, but what is behind all that? In 2004 there were a little over two million people living in Pyongyang and the project we worked on with Charlie was aimed at demystifying the city and capturing its human face. Apart from the requirements of a life under a strict socialist system, the population ate, slept, went to work and to school; just like city dwellers all over the world. It was intended to find an honest portrait of Pyongyang and its people, with whom we came into contact on almost a monthly basis through our guided tours of this most isolated nation.
Photography in Korea is a strange beast: North Koreans are anxious to show off the best side of themselves and their country at all times but can lead to farce as people overcome nerves and compete to have their picture taken, or refuse permission based on seemingly innocuous details such as having a missing button. Pyongyang citizens at the time primarily used cameras as a way of recording themselves at particular points in time and often at a place of significance – for example, a wedding group at the Workers Party Monument. Professional photographers at major sites are often on hand to take posed pictures for a small fee. For photographs taken at locations such as the zoo or even on Kim Il Sung Square, they will use kitsch props such as stuffed horses, flower arches, and teddy bears.
Welcome to Pyongyang was made when the digital world was just arriving. There were no mobile phones in the DPRK at the time (they were introduced only in 2008) and if a family was fortunate to have a camera it was used for formal portraits. There was no camera culture and film development costs were prohibitively expensive, although the use of digital cameras was developing and this has since resulted in a more informal approach, including taking selfies and snaps. Family albums record major events such as birthday celebrations, university graduations, and grandparents in front of tables laden with gifts on their wedding anniversaries. For a group scene, the photographer will ask his subjects to say “Kimchi” – the national dish of pickled cabbage – which reliably brings smiles to their faces. Photography for public exhibition is used to pay respects to the leaders of the country and to demonstrate the allegiance and support of the public and army in the various grand projects around the country. There has still been no photography exhibition at the National Art Gallery for aesthetic purposes only, photography is not regarded as an art form in its own right but is used in the same vein as socialist realism, to inspire the proletariat, to provide an unambiguously positive image of life.
Getting permission to shoot in a country where almost no professional photographers had visited was going to prove a big task, one that would require an extraordinary amount of trust from our Korean partners….