You think you’ve seen enough vacation selfies this summer, but you haven’t seen these. Taylor Pemberton, a 26-year-old from Minneapolis, documented his trip to North Korea on Instagram, posting a series of photographs which give a rare glimpse into the notoriously opaque country.
Pemberton is one of many tourists who visit North Korea every year; There are a number of agencies that facilitate trips like his. You just have to be willing to fork over the cash–and hope nothing goes wrong. The American photographer was constantly monitored but managed to take photos at certain moments.
Needless to say, a window into the totalitarian state–no matter how narrow or curated–is fascinating. Check out Pemberton’s images below, where you can see shots of military personnel, citizens playing volleyball, and a late-and-breaking story touting the nutritional benefits of broccoli.
On the flight over to North Korea, you’re able to already sense the extreme devotion and dedication to the late Kim Il-Sung. Even though Il-Sung hasn’t been alive since the 90s, the DPRK inhabitants consider him their president and outright great leader. When traveling through various cities, his presence and lineage is on constant display, with many residents proudly displaying pins on their clothing and with various monuments at popular transit points. It’s difficult to find a representation of Il-Sung or his family that hasn’t been artificially fabricated, and most of the history we discussed contained precomposed images to support various historical references. It was clear that no matter what, you pay respect to the great leader and to his rich family history that exists in North Korea today. #contrateur
Before I go any further, I feel it’s important to preface the content I’m about to share. With a country/topic like North Korea, I’d like to be as honest with my observations as possible. Many people have asked me how you gain access to a country that is so restricted. It’s pretty easy, even as an American. What you’ll need is simply time and money. This image is the visa that I was granted about a week before my flight. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang, while non-Americans were able to cross the border from Dandong by rail. I got this visa because I applied via the various tourism companies that service North Korea. My trip was 4 days, and we had two guides: one male, one female. It’s also important to note that you are NOT able to roam free at any given time. You follow a strict itinerary and you are on a tight schedule to see what North Korea allows. You stay in a hotel that is isolated on an island, and you are strictly informed when it is okay/not okay to take photos. However! with thousands of visitors each year, the fabric loosens, and that’s where things start to get interesting. You’re able to witness the the imperfections, the infinite nuances… the hiccups that reveal why some foreigners have become so obsessed and return year after year to live with what exists behind the curtain. I’ll admit, it was a tough decision to fork over the money to travel to North Korea. There are serious things to consider, not all of which I’m comfortable supporting. I’ve been debating this trip for over 9 months, and it wasn’t until 4 weeks ago that I finally pulled the trigger. The flight in from Beijing was short, and when we touched down in Pyongyang, I was nervous. In fact, I don’t think I was ever fully at ease. I’m not by any means the first to visit North Korea. There were other foreigners all visiting Pyongyang when I was there. I was lucky to get paired with an insightful and intelligent group of 6 other travelers, ranging from 25 to 71 years old. My family was worried, so were my friends, but I went because the DPRK is so complicated. It was ultimately a tough decision, but one that was so so worth it. #contrateur
North Korea considers itself a self-reliant socialist state. One of the benefits, they proclaim, is the subsidizing of core necessities: housing, healthcare, education, food, general commodities, etc. One of the things I noticed right away is that clothing choices appear standardized. Men generally wear slacks, dress shoes, and collared shirts. There are no consumer brands, no logos, no advertisements. There is most definitely nothing provocative or alluring worn or presented in public. It reminded me of simpler times, perhaps the early 20th century (minus the hats). After asking about this, I was told there are very few options to choose from, almost a ’rationing’ of sorts. It was tough to get a clear answer, and I think the mere curiosity seemed confusing to begin with. One thing you can always expect to see, however, is the pin displayed near the breast pocket… this time, a dual representation of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. #contrateur
Making a portrait of a local is basically impossible due to a tricky separation between tourists and general public. The only reason I was able to capture the man in the last post is because he was distracted by this, a mini-version of mass dance - a celebration that takes place on Liberation Day, a highlight of the trip. (I’ll be sharing more about this soon) #contrateur
One of the first things you do in North Korea is go pay respect to the great Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. These bronze statues are 22 meters high and part of a monument complex that was constructed in downtown Pyongyang. You could argue that the two figures depicted here are North Korea’s equivalent of Jesus, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Gandhi combined (which still may not even communicate the importance these two hold in North Korean lives). Paying respect here is pretty simple: patrons purchase flowers, lay them at the base of the monument, make a bow, and go on their way. It’s mandatory to do so. #contrateur
While I was in North Korea, a new time zone was established. From what we were told, this was an effort to further identify as an independent nation, one that no longer shares time with South Korea. The DPRK time zone is now 30 minutes prior to what was established when Japan controlled the Korean Peninsula thru WWII. #contrateur
North Korea has no internet, no television, no free information. This is the only public news I saw in Pyongyang, where each headline and each image is a tribute to the DPRK and great leader. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the sheer magnitude this imposes for an ecosystem and it’s people. Want to openly make art? Want to freely listen to music, or watch films? Want to create or learn anything outside the constructs of formal structure? Sorry, not possible. Even something as trivial as Instagram has had a huge impact on my ability to grow creatively. I’m able to practice the art of photography and documentary. I can be inspired by people I’ve never met. I feel the competition, the pressure to keep growing and exploring. I don’t know where I’d be without the accessibility of free information. I grew up on the Internet. I’ve formed my own conclusions. And for that, I feel very grateful. #contrateur
Hospitality is taken very seriously in North Korea. The Yanggakdo hotel is perfectly staffed with a wide array of workers to always suit your needs. Food is plentiful, rooms are tidy, the entire presentation feels very grandeur. Since you can’t leave the hotel, you have several amenities that exist throughout the building: various shops, a casino, several restaurants, a bowling alley, a billiards room, a karaoke room, ping pong, and more. This shot was taken at the rooftop restaurant, which is a 360 degree panorama room that slowly rotates during open hours. This was a popular hangout spot where we’d drink beer and enjoy each others company, particularly favorable since everything felt so eccentric and retro. #contrateur
One of the first rules you’re told is that you should not, under any circumstance, photograph military personnel. When I took this photo I was moving in a fast bus and didn’t even see the mass of soldiers at ease. Truthfully, you can push these limits if you dare, but the consequences could be disastrous. I did see a few other travelers with robust telephoto lenses which makes me wonder what they captured. I tried to be as respectful as possible through my journey and hope that some of the riskier bits will shine light on some important aspects of North Korean life. #contrateur
Pyongyang train station. I arrived at the airport and was instantly escorted to meet up with my group that had arrived from Dandong, China. Since I’m American, I had to fly into North Korea, a reason I’m still not 100% sure of. This building is pretty spectacular, inside and out, and is the central railway hub for connecting Pyongyang other towns that lie on the outskirts. #contrateur
Typical scenes in North Korea happen just like everywhere else in the world. People tease each other, they trip up the stairs, they try to fix their hair in the reflection. I’m inspired by all this because it brings a sense of relation to a society that is alienated for obvious reasons. We were crossing underneath the main road when I saw this. I chose to take this photo (and now post) because it makes me know those things are real, even if it’s just for a moment. #contrateur
On the road to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). For those that aren’t aware, the DMZ exists as a buffer zone between South and North Korea, a result of conflict and eventual armistice during the Korean War. There’s been a lot about this in the news lately with the recent tensions. I was thankfully scheduled to exit the country a few days before this all took place. #contrateur
My perspective into North Korea is only one small version of what exists. I want to encourage a wider opportunity to view the complexity in this country and hope to reveal a fair picture that swings both ways. I just learned about @furqanrai who also was in NK while I was there. Peep his stuff, some really nice and different shots! #contrateur
I’ve exited North Korea which concludes an incredibly confusing, complicated, enlightening, and joyous study of culture. As I continue to gain experience traveling this world of ours, i’m dumbfounded by the spectrum of complexity that exists from human to human, country to country. I’m excited to share many of the severe contrasts that make up what I saw and felt in the DPRK, a world and society that raised more questions than it solved. #contrateur