Friday, July 20, 2007
Inside North Korea
The challenges and discoveries of a photographer’s journey in the most reclusive of countries
I've traveled to some amazing places. But to visit North Korea, which has been largely closed to the outside world for more than 50 years, presented special challenges, particularly as an American.
Any outsider's time in North Korea is carefully controlled by the state, with visitors kept to minded groups or within well-defined limits. I was warned not to stray more than 100 meters from the hotel in Pyongyang when not on a guided excursion. But the public face the Democratic People's Republic of Korea chooses to present to the few visitors allowed in, and the unscripted moments glimpsed, are all the more fascinating for the country's closed and defensive stance as a "hermit kingdom," a nickname originating in 19th-century Korea's closed-border policy, which attempted to limit foreign encroachment.
The leash was long enough to allow some human interaction with people other than our guides. Photographing people was allowed by permission of a smile or a positive shake of the head, but any verbal communication was of grave concern. Our guides were open within limitations—no direct political discussion of any sort—and a genuine fondness grew between us, despite the rhetoric at stops like the War Museum on the North Korean side of the DMZ. On that visit, I was able to come from the north to within a few feet of where I had stood several years earlier on the south side of the cement Military Demarcation Line dividing the two Koreas.
The partition of the country, the isolation of the North, and its often unusual and unpredictable behavior have made it, in many ways, a strange and foreign place even to South Koreans—and yet it isn't, of course. After all, they're the same people. This is a particularly painful reality for the estimated one million families separated by the DMZ, the great divide between North and South.
I decided to leave my digital equipment at home and shoot film, since it would have been illegal for me to bring my computer into North Korea. On my return home, I had my negatives scanned on a Scitex EverSmart Supreme at DigitalFusion in Los Angeles (www.digitalfusion.net). I did 150 MB scans, and we were able to squeeze out an amazing amount of information from my negatives. The printed results in my book, Inside North Korea (Chronicle Books, www.chroniclebooks.com), and fine-art prints I've made hopefully will shed some light on this most reclusive and fascinating of countries.
Photo Tips For Safe Travel
Photography under difficult circumstances can often yield the greatest results. However, safety always should be your primary concern. Here are a few suggestions for reducing (but not eliminating) the dangers one faces in working in troubled areas of the globe.
1. Learn social customs and basic words in the local language. Verbal communication not only can open doors, but also can help you in emergency situations. Communication skills from a simple "Hello" to "Please" and "Thank you" are invaluable. I always carry a small phrase book or pocket dictionary.
2. When carrying a computer isn't allowed or is unwise, as in the case of North Korea, carrying an external hard drive, such as the Epson P-5000 Multimedia Storage Viewer, to back up digital photos is a terrific alternative.
3. Be prepared with a variety of electric plug adapters and make sure your equipment (chargers, etc.) can handle 100-240V. If not, bring a converter or update your equipment. Also, bring along surge protectors. Local power sources can be unreliable, and spikes that will destroy equipment aren't unheard of.
4. Check in with a doctor specializing in travel medicine. An ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure. I'm no fan of getting shots other than the photographic kind, but in the case of strange foreign illnesses, I'd rather roll up my sleeve and get inoculated.
5. Be sure to consult the U.S. Department of State Website for travel advisories at www.travel.state.gov. Prior to your departure, you should register with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate through the State Department's travel registration Website.
See more of Mark Edward Harris' work, including images from Inside North Korea, at www.markedwardharris.com