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A Photographic Tour Of A Country That Doesn't Like Cameras
Originally published on Wed September 3, 2014 7:41 am
German photojournalist Julia Leeb made two trips inside North Korea in 2012 and 2013, and she took photos that offer a glimpse into perhaps the most isolated and mysterious country in the world.
She's collected some of what she saw in a new book of photographs called North Korea: Anonymous Country. She hoped to capture life as best she could, given the restrictions on her travel.
On both trips, Leeb traveled on tourist visas, and she had to sign an agreement that she was there as a tourist and not for any other purpose. At some point on her second trip, Leeb says, her guides started to suspect that she might be more than just a tourist. Her passport was seized, and she was closely monitored by North Korean officials. Eventually, her passport was returned to her, but there were many more restrictions placed on just what she could photograph while she was there.
In general, though, the rules about photographing were best illustrated when it came to two larger-than-life bronze statues of the former leaders, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, and his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, who ruled for more than four decades before his death in 1994.
On photographing the statues of former leaders
You have to bow ... out of respect, and if you take pictures, you should take the entire statue. You cannot take a portrait, for example ... because it's a lack of respect. And you cannot take pictures from behind. ...
They are very, very nervous about this. Even if you enter the country and you have a newspaper, you are not allowed to fold a newspaper [with an image of the leader].
On her photograph of glass-encased rubber boots
There are hundreds of farmers living in a collective, and the Great Leader [Kim Jong Il] came once and he had a look at the boots, and since then, they have like a religious status.
On being monitored
Everybody who enters the country has two guides and one driver. They are monitoring us, but they are also monitoring each other. ... The driver, he just speaks Korean, and he is checking out if they are talking in their language [to each other]. ... They spoke absolutely perfect German, without accent, and they have never been to Germany. ...
[The guides] were asking me what people think about North Korea. I tried to be polite but I had to tell them that they don't have the best reputation and that many people think about North Korea as an aggressor, and the guides were like, 'That's not true. You outside world threaten us. We just try to defend ourselves.' ...
They try to give you a very good picture of their country, but it's obvious that there are problems. And then of course, due to the sanctions, they are also politically isolated.
On whether she got a sanitized picture of North Korea
To be honest, when you drive like 3,000 kilometers through the country, you cannot hide a country. Yes, of course, a lot of things are controlled, but I'm not blindfolded.
On what she learned
I'm totally amazed by the people. I don't support the dictatorship, the government, the politics, but the people — they are amazing people, and they are so disciplined and so curious. ...
[The book is] my vision. A lot of politics stop just having dialogue, and my vision is to have a dialogue with the people from North Korea, and the beginning is to give them a face outside the world, and one day maybe they will see our faces.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's hear now about what might be the most isolated and mysterious country in the world - North Korea. A German photojournalist named Julia Leeb made two trips inside that country, hoping to capture life as best she could, given the restrictions on her travel. She's collected some of what she saw in a new book of photographs called "North Korea: Anonymous Country." The photographs illustrate everything from street scenes to farm collectives - even an amusement park in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang...
JULIA LEEB: The amusement park was like a big surprise because, actually, it's very, very modern. It reminds a little bit about Oktoberfest. I come from Germany, from Bavaria. And I'm used to amusement parks, but it's much cleaner than Oktoberfest and much more civilized.
GREENE: Julia Leeb also told us about a photo she took of two larger-than-life bronze statues of what North Koreans call the Dear Leaders - the former supreme leader Kim Jong-Il and his father, Kim Il-Sung, the founder of Democratic People's Republic of North Korea.
LEEB: The statues - they are omnipresent in entire North Korea. It's like a religious substitute.
GREENE: Well, what did your guides tell you about what you could and could not do when it came to photographing these statues?
LEEB: OK, this was a very concrete order. You have to bow.
GREENE: You have to bow to the - to the leaders.
LEEB: Yes, out of respect. And if you take pictures, you should take the entire statue. You cannot take a portrait, for example.
GREENE: Why not?
LEEB: Because it's a lack of respect. And you cannot take pictures from behind.
GREENE: Do they look at your camera and make sure that you followed all of these orders?
LEEB: Yes. They are very, very nervous about this. Even if you enter the country, and you have a newspaper, you're not allowed to fold a newspaper.
GREENE: Oh, you can't fold the image of...
GREENE: ...Of the Dear Leader who's on the newspaper...
GREENE: ...Because you're actually cutting the photo of him.
GREENE: Goodness. There's another photograph of a pair of boots that that are orange-colored in a glass case. Was that in a museum or something?
LEEB: This is at a cooperative. So they're, like, hundreds of farmers living in a collective. And the great leader came once, and he had a look at the boots. And since then, they have, like, a religious status.
GREENE: Let me understand this. And I see an old photo of Kim Jong-Il.
LEEB: It's hard to understand this.
GREENE: Kim Jong-Il is looking at two pairs of boots.
GREENE: A blue pair boots and an orange pair of boots. The mere fact that he looked at these boots meant that they had to be put in a glass case and wrapped in plastic.
GREENE: Would the guides explain this to you?
LEEB: Yes, they do, but it's like if someone else would talk about religion, you don't try to make fun of them. You don't want to bring them an uncomfortable situation.
GREENE: And in this farm collective - I gather you didn't have any time to go on your own to meet farmers who are part of the collective to talk to them, to see what their daily life is like?
LEEB: I went there twice, in a farmer's house, and they look all the same. Like, they're all hard workers. And they live not an individual life, but they live a life in the collective. They don't have any access to television or radio. The only news they get is propaganda on the fields or classical music on the fields.
GREENE: I'm wondering how much freedom you had. You had guides...
GREENE: ...Who you were traveling with often, right?
LEEB: Everyone who enters the country has two guides and one driver. And they...
GREENE: Two guides and one driver from the government per person?
LEEB: Yes. They are monitoring us, but they are also monitoring each other.
GREENE: What do you mean by that?
LEEB: After we leave the country, they have to report.
GREENE: So the fear of the government, I presume, would be if one person - they might not tell the truth. But if you have two people, then they corroborate what they saw and make sure that they're getting all the facts about you.
LEEB: Yes, and the driver - he just speaks Korean, and he is checking out if they are talking in their language.
GREENE: So they speak - the guides are speaking English to you?
LEEB: They spoke absolutely perfect German without accents, and they've never been in Germany.
GREENE: And then the driver is - speaks Korean and is monitoring their conversations to each other.
GREENE: I wonder what questions your guides had for you?
LEEB: They were asking me what people think about North Korea.
GREENE: What did you tell them?
LEEB: I tried to be polite, but I had to tell them that they don't have the best reputation (laughing) and that many people think about Korea as an aggressor. And then the guides - they were like, that's not true. You outside world threaten us. We just try to defend ourselves.
GREENE: I mean, the other image that I feel like people outside North Korea have is this is a country with people who are living in incredibly horrible conditions. There's starvation, political repression - did you talk to them about that?
LEEB: Yes, but they try to give you a very good picture of the country, but it's obvious that there are problems. And then, of course, due to the sanctions, they are also politically isolated.
GREENE: With you spending all of your time with these two guides and this driver all monitoring you, all monitoring each other, it sounds like you got a very sanitized picture of this country.
LEEB: To be honest, when you drive, like, 3,000 kilometers through the country, you cannot hide a country. Yes, of course, a lot of things are controlled, but I'm not blindfolded.
GREENE: What, broadly, do you feel like you learned about this country from these two trips and taking these photographs?
LEEB: I'm totally amazed by the people. I don't support the dictatorship, the government, the politics, but the people - they're amazing people. And they are so disciplined, and they are so courteous.
GREENE: But I just wonder, Julia Leeb, isn't it possible that a lot of the people you met were sort of forced by people in the government to almost be putting on, you know, a performance for you?
LEEB: Yes, of course, I am totally aware that it's just a glimpse of the country.
GREENE: So given that, what do you think your book accomplishes? What should we take from it?
LEEB: It's - I try - like, it's my vision, you know? A lot of politics stop just having dialogue, and my vision is to have a dialogue with the people from North Korea. And the beginning is to give them a face outside the world, and one day, maybe they will see our faces.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Julia Leeb is a German photojournalist. Her book of photographs is called "North Korea: Anonymous Country." And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.