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Matjaž Tančič, Eddo Hartmann, Carl De Keyzer, and Werner Kranwetvogel worked with Koryo Studio for both their visa permissions, itinerary, and assistance with post-production input of their work. The four photographers made numerous trips to the country and their work is testament to their access and of course their relationship with their Korean guides. TIME journalist Charlie Campbell asked them to pick a photograph from their archives and discuss its backstory. Please see below from exerts from the article.
On October 2015, the Workers’ Party of Korea celebrates the anniversary of its foundation.
Eddo Hartmann: The Workers’ Party of Korea celebrates the anniversary of its foundation every year in October. This shot was made on a cold late night on Oct. 10, 2015. It was the first and last time my ever-present minders lost me in a crowd. Crossing this dark parade was a haunting experience; a 40-ton tank will never notice it hit you. I had been working on my “Setting The Stage” photography project for a few years but this was one of the key moments I felt transported back in a time when the Cold War swept through the whole world.
Armed with a tripod, I followed my guides in and around Pyongyang, eager to document the monumentality of this city and curious to peek beyond its façade. I encountered the capital as a grand stage, an imposing, often bleak façade that weighs down and dwarfs individuals. Leave it up to the guides and Pyongyang is a deserted city. Their focus is on the grand narrative of country, leader and revolution, and how these are one and undivided. Every story, every visit begins and ends with the Great Leaders, absorbing all attention like a black hole consuming all light.
Worshipers pray at Bongsu Church in Pyongyang.
Carl De Keyzer—Magnum Photos: European, American and Canadian missionaries introduced Protestant Christianity to Korea in the 19th century, where it took root, especially in the northern half of the peninsula. Prior to 1945, Pyongyang had the second-largest Christian population of any city in East Asia, after only Manila. Many of today’s Christians are the descendants of prominent merchant and intellectual families who were involved in nationalist activities against Japanese rule during the colonial period, and, for this reason, are allowed to continue their family traditions in the predominately atheist DPRK.
Two local guides pose in front of a mural in Pyongyang.
When they saw the photographer’s picture, they asked him to include more of the leaders in the artwork.
Werner Kranwetvogel: Tourism in North Korea is only possible within the bounds of guided tours, where tourists are kept separate from locals and their everyday lives. This strict separation goes so far that even the employees in the hotels are not local, but in fact Chinese citizens.
I was constantly looking for an authentic experience. Although I was an “individual traveller,” I was allocated two personal guides and a driver who accompanied me everywhere. At each monument or museum, local guides take over and show you around. But whenever possible I tried to break out of this carefully controlled bubble and capture little glimpses of the reality of everyday North Korean life. And you find those glimpses where you least expect them.
After visiting the metro museum in Pyongyang, I wanted to do a portrait of the local guides in front of the magnificent painting in the entrance. I was very keen that the guides didn’t overlap with “eternal president” Kim Il Sung or his son and framed the shot in the classic way of North Korean social realism, so that Kim Il Sung’s head was a bit higher than theirs. However, when the guides saw my picture, they were shocked. They insisted that I take a second one. This time around they took great care to place themselves in the frame in relation to the “Great Leader.” When I showed them this second picture, they were very satisfied with the outcome. Two small workers in the service of the friendly super-father.