Military family in Samjiyon. Photo: Raymond K Cunningham Jr
Military family in Samjiyon. Photo: Raymond K Cunningham Jr

Images of North Korea published in Western media are typically a portrayal of gloomy looking people, poverty and strict security guards, propaganda posters or bombastic military parades. That’s partly a true and significant picture.

But there’s also another side to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. That is of people having a daily life, not that different from yours or mine.

A new book called “The North Koreans: Glimpses of Daily Life in the DPRK” aims to show what people do in their everyday lives – spending time with friends, playing sports, fishing, having picnics, etcetera – against the backdrop of the totalitarian ideology.

Dutch publicist Evelyn de Regt came up with the book idea after a trip to Pyongyang last year, which made her reflect over the cat-and-mouse game between foreigners taking photographs and censors’ attempts to intervene.

“I am not an expert on North Korea. But I do have some thoughts about photojournalism,” said de Regt, whose background is in the history of photography.

“It is common knowledge that ‘negative’ news is more interesting to people than positive news: it is just how journalism works. Because North Korea is so seclusive, so closed for media, this tendency to report only on negative or absurd news is even stronger; there is no system to compensate for this tendency.”

For example, during her research she came across many sensation-seeking articles. One read: “North Koreans eating grass” with a photo of people gardening.

“While researching I found out that some people went a few times to North Korea and had a good eye for interesting subjects: economical developments, the drills for all those parades etc. I thought let’s make a selection of their work, and describe as much as possible what we can see on those pictures and provide some historical background,” she said.

Young girls in Wonsan. Photo: Raymond K Cunningham Jr
Young girls in Wonsan. Photo: Raymond K. Cunningham Jr

In the forward to the book, de Regt acknowledges that any attempt to document daily life in North Korea is, eventually, futile. She has, however, tried to include images of as many parts of the country and aspects of daily life as possible.

It’s an interesting selection of 350 photographs, made by DPRK watchers over the past decade. Most images are taken by German Martin Tutsch, with American Raymond Cunningham, Eric Lafforgue from France and other photographers as important contributors. Some are superior from a technical and compositional viewpoint, while other are snapshots from a bus window or hotel room.

“In certain sense North Korea is a Mecca for photographers; photographically aesthetic scenes are just everywhere,” de Regt said.

Taedong Gate, Pyongyang, built in 1635. Credit: PRIMAVERA PERS/MT
Taedong Gate, Pyongyang, built in 1635. Photo:: PRIMAVERA PERS/MT