Snapshots from a secret state: Panoramic pictures of North Koreans at work and play give an extraordinary glimpse of everyday life
16:39 GMT, 22 December 2012
Award-winning photographer David Guttenfelder makes frequent trips to notoriously secretive North Korea trying to capture the country as accurately as possible for outsiders.
Here he describes capturing this set of photos which offer a rare glimpse into the everyday life of its citizens…
My window on North Korea is sometimes, quite literally, a window – of a hotel room, the backseat of a car, a train.
Fleeting moments of daily life present themselves suddenly, and they are opportunities to show a side of the country that is entirely at odds with the official portrait of marching troops and tightly coordinated pomp that the Pyongyang leadership presents to the world.
In April, I was part of a group of international journalists that traveled by train to the launch site for this year's first, failed rocket test.
Crowd gathering: People gather under a diving board platform to watch as fellow swimmers hesitate to try a dive at a newly opened swimming pool
Preparations: A woman stands on the side of a road holding artificial flowers after returning from a rehearsal for a mass parade planned for later in the week to honor the North Korean leaders in Pyongyang
Sweet sounds: North Korean students practice playing the accordions at the Samjiyon Schoolchildrens' Palace in Samjiyon, North Korea. The facility was built for children to take part in after school programs in the arts, sciences, sports, computer and vocational training
We traveled in a spotless train used
by the Communist leadership, and I spent the five-hour journey inside my
sleeper car looking out the large, clean window at a rural landscape
seen by few foreign eyes.
The tracks cut across fields where
large groups of farmers were at work in clusters. Occasionally, there
was a plow drawn by oxen or a brick-red tractor rolling along the gravel
roads. On a rocky hilltop above the train tracks, a small boy sprinted
and waved at the passing train. Every few hundred yards along the entire
route, local officials in drab coats stood guard, their backs to the
tracks, until its cargo of foreign reporters had safely passed.
I have made 17 trips into North Korea
since 2000, including six since The Associated Press bureau in
Pyongyang opened in January 2012. It is an endlessly fascinating and
visually surreal place, but it is also one of the hardest countries I
have ever photographed.
Everyday life: A North Korean boy runs on a hilltop in the countryside in North Korea's North Phyongan Province
On display: North Korean military members chat as they line up at a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party
Food resources: Ears of field corn lay in piles along a roadside on a farm on the edge of Kaesong, North Korea. It was a tough year for farmers, who grappled with an extended dry spell in the spring, followed by heavy rains from a series of summer storms and typhoon
Secret glimpse: North Koreans rest under portraits of the late leaders, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, at the end of a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth
As one of the few international
photographers with regular access to the country, I consider it a huge
responsibility to show life there as accurately as I can.
That can be a big challenge.
Foreigners are almost always accompanied by a government guide – a
“minder” in journalistic parlance – who helps facilitate our coverage
requests but also monitors nearly everything we do.
Despite the official oversight, we
try to see and do as much as we can, push the limits, dig as deeply as
possible, give an honest view of what we are able to see.
Over time, there have been more and more opportunities to leave the showplace capital, Pyongyang, and mingle with the people.
But they are usually wary of foreigners and aware that they too are being watched.
On guard: Soldiers stand guard in front of the country's Unha-3 rocket at Sohae Satellite Station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite was launched on April 13, 2012 but failed to reach orbit
Simple travel: North Koreans walk under a highway bridge on the outskirts of Pyongyang
Quiet moment: A family picnics in the grass at a hilltop park overlooking Pyongyang
Tradition: Rockets roll past flower waving civilians and a soldier standing at attention during a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square
This has been a historic year for
North Korea, with large-scale dramatic displays to mark important
milestones, struggles with food shortages, crippling floods, drought and
typhoons, as well as growing evidence that people's lives are changing
in small but significant ways.
But in a country that carefully
choreographs what it shows to the outside world, separating what is real
from what is part of the show is often very difficult.
Last spring, as North Korea was
preparing for the 100th birthday of its late founder, Kim Il Sung,
citizens practiced for weeks, even months, for the large-scale military
parade and public folk dancing that was part of the celebration.
One morning, on our way through town,
we saw small groups of performers walking home from an early rehearsal.
They wore their brightly colored traditional clothing, but covered over
with warm winter coats. In their hands were the red bunches of
artificial flowers that they shake and wave in honor of country's
leaders during mass rallies.
From the van window, I saw a woman
standing alone, holding her bouquet as she waited for the bus. It was,
to me, a more telling moment than the actual events we would cover a
week later, a simple but provocative glimpse into one person's life.
Decoration with a difference: Forest printed wallpaper hangs around a doorway in Pyongyang
Vast expanse: North Korean stands on a rural road in the countryside in the country's North Phyongan Province
Decoration: Artificial flowers decorate a wall inside a restaurant near Samjiyon
Making a living: A worker at a communal apple farm factory for bottling apple juice on the outskirts of Pyongyang
For this project, I used a Hasselblad XPAN, a panoramic-view film camera that is no longer manufactured.
Throughout the year, I wore it around
my neck and shot several dozen rolls of color negative film in between
my normal coverage of news and daily life with my AP-issued digital
The XPAN is quiet, discrete, manual
and simple. Because it has a wide panoramic format, it literally gives
me a different view of North Korea.
The film also reflects how I feel when
I'm in North Korea, wandering among the muted or gritty colors, and the
fashions and styles that often seem to come from a past generation.
In my photography, I try to maintain a
personal point of view, a critical eye, and shoot with a style that I
think of as sometimes-whimsical and sometimes-melancholy. My aim is to
open a window for the world on a place that is widely misunderstood and
that would otherwise rarely be seen by outsiders.
I hope these images help people to
develop their own understanding of the country, one that goes beyond the
point-counterpoint presented by Pyongyang and Washington. And maybe
they can help create some sort of bridge between the people of North
Korea and the rest of the world.
Steeped in tradition: A woman enters the front doors of the Grand People's Study House where a statue of the late leader Kim Il Sung stands in Pyongyang
On duty: A female North Korean soldier, working as a guide, stands before a map to explain the layout of what is said to be a camp site where the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung overnighted while leading a battle against the Japanese at the foot of Mt. Paektu
Leisure time: A family plays badminton at Majon Beach near Hamhung
Everyday life: A coat dries on the balcony of an apartment block in central Pyongyang
Helping out: North Koreans try to move a truck, retrofitted to run on a barrel of burning wood, in a riverbed near Ungok, North Korea, during operations to aid victims of heavy flooding
Getting around: North Korean commuters ride on a trolley car in central Pyongyang
On mass: Military members applaud the country's leaders, including Kim Jong Un, from their seats on the field of a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by North Korea's ruling party
Landscape: Apple tree saplings stand in rows beneath workers' housing on a hill at a communal apple farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang
Commemorations: Soldiers march and carry a portrait of Kim Jong Il during a military parade at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang commemorating what would have been the late North Korean leader's 70th birthday
Rebuilding life: North Koreans try to rebuild the banks of a washed out riverbed near their corn fields which were damaged by July flooding, in Songchon County
Education: Men study in desks beneath portraits of the country's late leaders, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, at the Grand People's Study House
View at dusk: The sun sets over Pyongyang, North Korea, behind the curtained window of a downtown hotel room
Social times: Men drink and sing inside a pagoda at a hilltop park overlooking Pyongyang
Looking on: A displaced North Korean man, left homeless by July flooding, walks among temporary tents and damaged homes in his destroyed neighborhood in Ungok, North Korea
Luxurious retreat: A waiter at a hotel, catering to the country's elite, walks on the resort's private beach at Majon Beach near Hamhung
On display: North Koreans gather along the banks of the Taedong River in Pyongyang to watch a fireworks display to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung
Residence: Pedestrians walk along a street past apartment blocks in central Pyongyang
Sport time: Men watch others play basketball at a public court in Pyongyang
Commuting: People move in and out of a train on a subway platform at the metro station in Pyongyang