The World According to Herr Willie: North Korea


This might be a bit melodramatic but, hey, it’s the Internet. But yes, I went to North Korea. Even better, I came back safe and sound and with some 80 rolls of film in my rucksack.

We have such a singular image of this country. The pictures we know of are short of color and smiles. But this is going to change. I have captured the smiles on slide film and Xpro, in medium format and panoramiquescope—shots that might have never been seen in these formats before. Though I am currently in the phase of scanning and finalizing my albums, I wanted to kickstart this campaign with my overall thoughts about how to shoot on film in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Credits: wil6ka

To say that North Korea is an exciting travel destination is an understatement. The little country is on the bucket list of many adventurers, and so it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to traverse the northern part of the Korean peninsula. Never before was I so mindful on what to bring and what not to leave. During the eight-day journey, I always tried to be on top of my game. Well, besides those drinking nights with high-voltage soju.

Still, I would like to state upfront that I enjoyed my time in North Korea to the fullest. I love the place and its people. And in a way it was an “inward” travel as well. It is a totalitarian state, no doubt, and that has a huge psychological effect on its citizens and its travelers. And to get nobody in trouble, because of his or her kindness towards me, I will call every single North Korean in my articles Mr. or Mrs. Kim. Probably never far from the truth but still a considerate codename.

Credits: wil6ka

Every traveling group in the DPRK has at least two guides who come along in every step the tourists take, usually two Mr. Kims or a Mr. and a Mrs.Kim. It’s a double check system that probably works in the whole country. The Kims were pretty astounded by the five cameras I always brought along, the fact that I shot on film, and with the way I shoot what I set my eyes on. I must have looked like a freak to them, which is probably never good in a very restricted country. But I still wonder if that came to my advantage or not. Eventually, everything just came down to sympathy. The Kims surely thought I was very peculiar, but they liked me. And that’s why they accepted my awkwardness and let me be.

There you have it. If you like people, they just might like you back.

Credits: wil6ka

There are a few photographic rules explained to visitors upon arrival. Shooting military personnel or people in uniform is not allowed. That’s tough since 40% of all workers are soldiers. Folding the picture of the beloved Great Leader, the Great General, and the Great Marshal is not allowed, too.

In the countryside, they also ask people not to photograph. If there is a building site, they ask people to refrain from shooting as well. We tried to stick to the rules, especially with the soldiers. But our guides weren’t so strict on us when we toured the countryside. Rather, they made jokes about me being a peculiar person who probably is more than what he appears to be. That certainly kept the tension high, though.

Credits: wil6ka

To shoot whether in analog or digital was never a question for me: analog, it is. Sure, there were challenges that came with shooting on film in North Korea, but there was also a lot of great chances. There was always little time to shoot, and I mean very little. We were basically rushing through monuments and historic places. Everything was on a tight schedule. And as I had to change films all the time, I was always the last and could take only a few shots. Of course, I never really knew if I succeeded at the time because I had to rely on my skills alone.

I took a Plaubel Makina 67 for my medium format shots, but I was really happy that Lomography brought out the LC-A 120. I thought right away that it might be the perfect camera to bring to North Korea because if there is limited time to focus, it’s smarter to rely on zone focusing. With the LC-A+ and LC-Wide, lomographers are really trained to move with the camera into the right zones. Same goes for the right exposure time.

When we went into the Pyongyang Metro, I was so happy that the LC-A 120 is semi-automatic. There was so much at stake, so limited time, and so much to shoot. On the outside, the LC-A 120 looks cute and rather not professional, which is a huge advantage if the photographer himself doesn’t want to look suspicious in any way. Also, the shots made with it cannot be controlled on a display. So I really pushed the envelope and took a few photos on the sly. I ended up having the LC-A 120 hanging around my neck all the time. Ultimately, the guides like photos of their country to be taken because they are proud of it. For them, it’s the best place in the world. Pyongyang, especially, is full of amazing architectural sites.

Credits: wil6ka

Unlike most tourists, I was never really interested in taking pictures of locals with myself. I wanted them pure, just by themselves. Here and there, I asked people and they either agreed or declined. I mean, every tourist is pretty much an alien there as there are so few people coming over. So there is always a huge curiosity, especially with the kids. Older North Koreans might have experienced stress in the past from whatever matter, so they have already used their heads too much and are sometimes afraid of being photographed.

Also, many don’t really understand the concept of a portrait. I think, as a collective, the group plays a much bigger role in the North Korean society than the individual. Many people just don’t understand what is so interesting about them as a person. They are ultra-modest and don’t want to put themselves in the limelight. They don’t even know what to do in front of a camera, but that created some very honest and truthful pictures in its own right.

Credits: wil6ka

The biggest challenge was bringing the film out of the country. I made it eight days without getting in trouble, and I crossed my fingers that no secret agent would visit my hotel room while I was out and put a huge magnet on my films to erase everything. But as the final days approached I got more and more nervous.

We planned to take the train from Pyongyang to Beijing. Anja, my fellow traveler and organizer of the trip, mentioned a story that happened to her on her last trip in that very train two years ago. All her digital photographs were checked and the border patrol came from the neighboring cabin with a bag full of films. They took them all. I was really worried and almost shipped them all through the DHL service of the hotel, which would have been very dumb because they would have been out of my hands for good.

Credits: wil6ka

What made me a very suspicious person was the sheer amount of film I carried with me. Because I continued on to China after my stay in Korea, I had at least 150 rolls of film with me. I came up with a backup plan: my guide wrote me a letter in Korean saying that I am a tourist and that I only took shots of my friends and landscapes, and that the amount of film is connected with my ongoing journey. But this was only supposed to take action if I get in trouble.

When I checked my films I also stumbled upon a problem which only photographers might understand. I had black and white 35mm film with me that was formerly used for traffic surveillance. The Maco Eagle AQS probably has some infrared sensitive emulsion and is therefore pretty high contrast. But it is written on the film: S-U-R-V-E-I-L-L-A-N-C-E! How do you explain to a soldier your awkward liking for expired film if it clearly looks like a secret agent’s favorite film?

So what I did was rip the sticky labels off all the suspicious rolls of film, which took me a couple of hours. And I left everything to fate. I didn’t even hide any film. I basically put them on top of my bag because they would check it, anyway. Why make it harder for them?

Credits: wil6ka

We arrived at the border and I put my game face on. The first soldier came to collect our visa, which was a leaflet that we always carried. The second soldier came to take our passports, and the third checked if we took the phones registered upon entry and didn’t leave it with a local.

The fourth soldier came to check the luggage. A friendly fellow, it seemed. He came to our cabin and asked for the first bag. I stood up from the lower bench to help my friend Santosh with his suitcase. While getting up I hit my head a little on the bench above. I didn’t even feel anything because of the adrenaline rush. But the soldier was all empathetic and got up to pet my head, which kind of broke the ice for the two of us. We opened the bag and he looked at the surface and checked it a little with his hand. That was it. And I thought, I should have hidden all my film because he was only checking the surface. I am in trouble now.

I was next. I reached for my large backpack which was on the opposite upper bench. It’s heavy. I pulled it bit by bit, taking my time. Then all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around, it’s the soldier. He nodded and said that it’s okay, I didn’t have to show him my bag. It turned out that I was the only one in the whole wagon who didn’t have to show his luggage.

What a climax. I was the happiest person in all of North Korea.

Credits: wil6ka

written by wil6ka on 2015-08-20 #places #location #dprk #north-korea #willie-schumann #the-world-according-to-herr-willie

Mentioned Product

Lomo LC-A 120

Lomo LC-A 120

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  1. wil6ka
    wil6ka ·

    Ah - for your understanding. The original title was (how to shoot and not to be shot in) Northkorea - That's why I started my first line with "it's a bit melodramatic, but, hey, i's the internet. Just to fill the imaginary gaps here :) I am always in for adding some pepper to my words....

  2. vicuna
    vicuna ·

    wow wow wow, what a story Herr Willie!!!!! Simply fantastic!

  3. mrrotivlarbac
    mrrotivlarbac ·


  4. theblues
    theblues ·

    Great story @wil6ka ! travelling a little bit while reading it :)

  5. gheinz
    gheinz ·

    Great story ! I like the end...

  6. hannah_brown
    hannah_brown ·

    Fascinating stuff!

  7. hervinsyah
    hervinsyah ·

    Deserve pulitzer award and glad it's written at the site that always underestimate by that so called pro photographer

  8. tattso
    tattso ·

    Amazing story and photos willie!

  9. trash-gordon-from-outer-space
    trash-gordon-from-outer-space ·

    What an exciting story! Glad you could take your films,

  10. stouf
    stouf ·

    What a story! Herr Willie pushes the boundaries once more! What's next? A trip to the moon? 😄

  11. fatamorgana
    fatamorgana ·

    Hello .
    Forgive me but I'm struggling to understand what it is that you are trying to show is in these North Korean photographs.

    As you say you took five cameras which is alway going to be too many, however, what I'm most confused about is your house style.

    Can you possibly explain a little more about what it is you are trying to portray here?

    I've been reading this Internet site for some time and yours is the first post I'm choosing to comment upon as I am enormously confused about what it is you are trying to convey in these photographs.

    Thank you in anticipation .

  12. wil6ka
    wil6ka ·

    Hey @fatamorgana, thank you very much for your interest. Well, maybe you overinterprete things here. What I do is going to new places with open eyes and curiousity and I try to get in touch with the local people, as far as it's possible. And in case of North Korea it's obviously a very difficult thing to do. But there is no political agenda or message on a silver plate coming with this. I just want to take pictures, that's it. Overall there is a desire to celebrate diversity. And I think that's already quite something, nowadays.

  13. wil6ka
    wil6ka ·

    And I bow to you all for taking the time and interest and for your kind words @stouf @tattso @gheinz @vicuna @hervinsyah @mrrotivlarbac @theblues @hannah_brown @trash-gordon-from-outer-space

  14. kelvin_wx
    kelvin_wx ·

    i can not agree with you more about your reply to fatamorgana....this really quite is something,nowadays...good work,man!

  15. kelvin_wx
    kelvin_wx ·

    and I have to say i have also been to North Koera too, but they took my cameras away and gave me back when i left the country so i saw you photos, i feel a little bit jealous :P

  16. tattso
    tattso ·

    @wil6ka, how did you get the cameras inside there and out? Since it seems like they are very arbitrary about this as they took @kelvin_wx cameras but not yours.

  17. tattso
    tattso ·

    @kelvin_wx which cameras did you bring with you?

  18. petrischev
    petrischev ·

    странный свет в Корее, очень своеобразный

  19. kelvin_wx
    kelvin_wx ·

    i took lc-a+ and leicaflex sl35 with me @tattso

  20. wil6ka
    wil6ka ·

    @kelvin_wx @tattso Well, I spread some of my cameras to my fellow travellers, so I didn´t have the full amount on me. And then I guess it depends on the time you are coming, how relaxed is the political situation. Another very important thing seems to be the contact with the very custom officer you will get. What kind of person is he, how was his day, does he trust you? I guess there is really a certain amount of luck. But now it's also allowed to take your smartphone with you. 2 years ago they wrapped them up and you also got them back, when you left the country. I think there is no real formula, you just have to try to be less suspicious and hope for an easy entry....

  21. lostinthought68
    lostinthought68 ·

    Great story, love the photos.

  22. gepo1303
    gepo1303 ·

    Spannend, wow.

  23. kelvin_wx
    kelvin_wx ·

    yes...maybe the policy is more flexible now, i remembered when went North Korea, they indeed took our cell phones...and you got more luck than us:P anyway you had so many great photos about the secret country is really a good thing to you and to all of us...

  24. herbert-4
    herbert-4 ·

    Truly outstanding article and photos!! Thank you!! Magnets do not bother film, just light and x-rays. Silver and color dyes are not magnetic. Electronic digital cameras can be bothered strong magnets, depending on media types. Film was the best thing for this. Low tech is less threatening...

  25. lawypop
    lawypop ·

    What a close shave with the custom u have!!!PHEW!! and glad the films "lived"to show their awesomeness indeed! This is still a very elusive country to me and really COOL that u got them on FILM!!

  26. kelvin_wx
    kelvin_wx ·

    agree with @lawypop

  27. fatamorgana
    fatamorgana ·

    I think you misunderstand.

    By simply snapping a new culture for the sake of it is meaningless. Then going the Intagram route of apply effects and overlays, again, is seemingly pointless.

    Sorry, but I gain no Sense of Place, not the people, not the culture, not the situation there.

  28. fatamorgana
    fatamorgana ·

    The idea that one has ones cameras taken from you is nonsense.
    They are and have been encouraging tourism for quite some years so the idea of having ones cameras confiscated is untrue.

  29. wil6ka
    wil6ka ·

    thank you for your contribution @fatamorgana which is adding nothing to nothing, unfortunately!

  30. ihave2pillows
    ihave2pillows ·

    @fatamorgana Dear Lomo buddies, NK is a very difficult place to take pictures, simply because there are so many restrictions on what we can and cannot do. Even when I was touring the country, we didn't really get to see anything beyond monuments and museums. Despite the fact that NK has relaxed their rules on cameras, we did get into troubles with soldiers telling us off. Freedom is not something you can take for granted in NK.

  31. kelvin_wx
    kelvin_wx ·

    yes yes, i have the same experience with @ihave2pillows you can only see what they wanted you to see...only museum and some sculptures....maybe I have been the country but I think I did not see any reality.

  32. kelvin_wx
    kelvin_wx ·

    And the people are not allowed to talk to tourists, although we have almost the same faces to them..

  33. fatamorgana
    fatamorgana ·

    Having read a number of books on North Korea including, more latterly, Escape from 15* Demick's masterful study whilst posted to Seoul, the Aquaeiums of Pyongyang, and of course both the Lonely Planet and Bradt travel guides I have a reasonable grasp on the opportunities for travel in country. A re read of the iconic novel 1984 comes in useful too.

    Then you have the resources of Corbis and Getty, the world's two largest image libraries, add into the mix the other agencies such as V11, Magnum, Panos and a host of others and you can perhaps better comprehend my surprise at you offering from 80 rolls of film.

    I'm sorry but I get no sense of North Korea neither it's geopolitical situation or the people or the architecture or the landscape. There is nothing in these photographs which give me any indication to my mind of the possible differences or contrast between North Korea, South Korea, parts of China or anywhere else in the local vicinity. I get no insight, nothing about The North from the images.

    I entered into the gallery in good faith, perhaps expecting some quite interesting and revealing images of North Korea, especially having read a number of books on other peoples' travels and other peoples' blogs (both written and containing images) and this is why, for the first time I thought I would add a comment.

  34. fatamorgana
    fatamorgana ·

    Which tour did you take and with which travel company?

    I would be interested in viewing the itinerary which you experienced, where you visited, your mode of transport in / out of the country and suchlike.

  35. ihave2pillows
    ihave2pillows ·

    Oh baby. For sure you won't see those fashion outside NK in 2015 in SK or China. Unless you escape from your hotel and evade the army guards, you won't see how real live. Everyone who greeted us are just state "actors". So basically the whole country is putting on a show for tourists.

  36. ihave2pillows
    ihave2pillows ·

    Oh baby. For sure you won't see those fashion outside NK in 2015 in SK or China. Unless you escape from your hotel and evade the army guards, you won't see how real live. Everyone who greeted us are just state "actors". So basically the whole country is putting on a show for tourists.

  37. tattso
    tattso ·

    @wil6ka thanks for this great piece of info for my next trip ;)

  38. tattso
    tattso ·

    @kelvin_wx argh what a pity.

  39. neanderthalis
    neanderthalis ·

    Der Glückspilz! You will have so many fascinating stories to tell when you retire.

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