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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.