Unprecedented Photographs of Real Life in North Korea

North Korea is a nation of which little is known or understood in the rest of the world. Their government’s notorious mistrust of outsiders keeps the country shrouded in mystery, almost never allowing visitors from the West to enter. The few who do are usually given a carefully controlled experience, only permitted to see places and events that the government deems appropriate. Photojournalist David Guttenfelder, however, hopes to expose the reality of daily life for North Koreans in a way few, if any, have been able to do before:

In 2011, when the Associated Press decided to open a bureau in North Korea, Guttenfelder volunteered to be their resident photographer. Having spent approximately 100 days per year in the closely guarded country, he has been able to gradually open a window on North Korea to the rest of the world with his photographs.

On his first visit to the capitol Pyongyang, Guttenfelder remembers, he was scarcely allowed to see anything: the windows of the bus he rode on were blocked out with curtains; the windows of his hotel with black plastic. “I had the feeling that there was nothing real there– that it was like the Truman show, it was all a facade,” he says. However, over time, he has steadily gained more access to scenes typical in the life of real North Koreans– even in rural areas, from which outsiders are generally forbidden.

north korea swimming

Synchronized swimmers dance to a song entitled “We Will Defend General Kim Jong Un With Our Lives,” in an extravagant display of patriotism typically shown to outsiders.

Spontaneity and mobility are key for Guttenfelder’s more revealing images. Now that he is no longer limited to windowless vehicles and rooms, he gets many great shots with small, portable film cameras while traveling from one place to the next. Even more importantly, in February 2013, the North Korean government began permitting mobile phones to enter the country. Since then, Guttenfelder’s phone camera has become perhaps his most useful tool, enabling him to instantly send images to Associated Press– and to share them on Instagram.

The allowance of mobile phones in North Korea may mark a tremendous change in the way the nation will be seen by the world in years to come. By releasing their stronghold on what photography is allowed or forbidden, the government makes it possible for real life– “unguarded, unscripted moments,” in Guttenfelder’s words– to finally come to light.

north korea hospital

This rare glimpse of the realities of North Korea shows poeple bringing blankets and food to their family members who are in a hospital without heat.

“The power of photography has been for half a century in the hands of the state of North Korea, and now we have a chance to see something for ourselves.” – David Guttenfelder

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