Travel

Technicolor Photos of an Unseen North Korea

According to Fabian Muir, to get the shots others haven't, you just need to learn to shoot quick and dirty.

by Gavin Haynes
Nov 14 2016, 4:55pm

All photos by Fabian Muir

You might already know Fabian Muir from the time he trekked 1,000 miles across Australia to take some photos of a burqa. Deep Grecian blue against the rocky reds of the soil, soberly surreal, his "Blue Burqa in a Sunburnt Landscape" was an oblique, salty response to Australia's attempted ban on the face covering.

It's that same smart yanking of our perspective that he employs in his newest project. For the past couple of years, Fabian has made five separate trips to North Korea, building up enough rapport with the hermit kingdom's overlords to penetrate deeper than almost any photographer yet. With its jollity and brassy daubs of color, it's definitely not the slate-grey narrative westerners are accustomed to seeing when it comes to the DPRK.

I caught up with Muir to hear how he did it.

VICE: The problem with reporting on North Korea is that the tourists tend to be shuttled around the same circuit by the authorities, so we're all accustomed to the same tedious carousel of anecdotes by now. How did you break out of that loop?
Fabian Muir: Actually, in terms of the places I went to, surprisingly I think there's only one province that's strictly off-limits to outsiders. So it became a matter of negotiation. I went five times over two years, and the basic idea was that you'd put down the places you want to go, then you get a response, and it goes back-and-forth between you, your organizers, and the authorities.

Did you get much space to do your own thing?
Only four times have I actually been allowed to walk around on my own. The rest of the time, you have two guides who police your presence. You're always going to have that. There's no getting around it, so you just need to learn to shoot quick and dirty.

Your work seems quite warmly disposed toward the place. Was that deliberate?
Yes. It seems obvious, but the idea that people there are all just living these very ordinary lives in the middle of all this madness was fascinating. Do you know Tomas van Houtryve? In 2009, he did a celebrated photo essay called "The Land Of No Smiles", which, as the title implied, tended toward a certain perspective. I definitely had those shots in the forefront of my mind, so I was quite surprised to see a different narrative emerge as I traveled. One much more joyous and humanist.

Did anyone try to censor your photos?
I've crossed three different borders. By train, plane, foot. I've never had anyone look at my photos or cards. They're much more interested in what you bring in. David Guttenfelder, who ran the Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang—he's been there 40 times. He also says he's never had his cards checked. So when you read about these people high-noting themselves, you need to take it with a pinch of salt.

Are there any rules to taking pictures there?
Recently I saw a clip, one BBC journalist, extremely nervous, who took a photograph where he cropped the leaders in his photograph, and they got very angry. If you take a photograph of the leaders, you have to capture their entire body. You can't crop. And you can't take any photographs of the military. And also, you can't take photographs of laborers, I think mainly because so many of them are also in the military.

Talk us through some of the shots. What about this desolate farm scene?
That was on a provincial road in western North Korea, in May 2015. They hadn't had rain for quite some time. They always seem to be at the extremes climatically. You may have heard they've had floods recently.

There's a lot of paranoia around their weather, and they speak about that quite openly—about the Arduous March, this great famine they had in the 90s. In this image, I gather the heavens finally opened in July, which already cost them a lot of that year's harvest.

Then there's this guy on the beach with a big beach umbrella...
There's this brilliant Pultizer-winning novel by Adam Johnson called The Orphan Master's Son, extrapolating on every perversion you've heard about North Korea. In the popular mind, this town, Wonsan, is where you retire to after a successful career as a state bureaucrat. But in the book, it's actually a knacker's yard where people get boiled down for glue.

After reading it, I became a bit fascinated by the place. It turns out it's a real resort town, and they've recently built a massive airport there, though it's unclear why. I don't know if everyone has access, or if it's just certain classes. The hotels are noticeably superior. There's a beach life. Classic beach life as we know it: children playing in the water, people with rubber rings. The only thing that reminds you you're in a time capsule is that they all wear very retro swimsuits.

Is that Kim Jong-un in a flower display?
Funnily, you never see pictures of the current incumbent like that. There are no grand images of Kim Jong-un like the ones you see of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. This was at a flower exhibition, which is quite a common thing. The begonias are called Kim Jong Ilia. And the purple ones are Kim Il Sungia.

Was this picnic scene a way of showing how "normal" it is there amid the rest of it?
That's a place called Moran Hill in Pyongyang. When you do this sort of documentary shooting work in North Korea, people often want to tell you everything you see is staged, but I'd have to say I'd be very concerned if they'd mobilized 2,000 people just to fool me. You see picnics all over the place in North Korea—they're picnic fanatics.

Do you ever worry you've ended up a pawn of the Kims? That you're only showing the world what they want outsiders to see?
There have been some negative comments, but those people haven't been there, and they haven't traveled the thousands of miles I have. They can't understand this is a very fair representation of what I've been doing. I tried to keep it balanced—the farmer on the dry ground versus the leisure center. But some people refuse to accept that, even in the DPRK, people are people, and they are as warm and spontaneous as people anywhere. If you show a kid who's smiling, they imagine there's someone with a bayonet behind the child.

Check out Fabian Muir's website.

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