Israel-based photographer Chris Sommers first got the idea to travel to North Korea when her husband floated the idea of going with a tour group. As the daughter of a career soldier in the US Army and an American passport holder, Chris was reluctant to make the trip.
She knew US/North Korea diplomatic relations were non-existent and there wouldn’t be much the US could do if she encountered problems. After some deliberation, Chris decided to use the opportunity to create a photo series about the North Korean people.
On a previous project, Chris had traveled to China and shot a photo series of formal portraits of Chinese people. During that trip, she was able to sit down with people, chat, and show them pictures she had taken in an effort to break the ice.
She set out with the same goal in North Korea – to photograph the people she met and steer clear of politics and the government.
Prior to her trip, she read up on the customs of travel, what you’re allowed and not allowed to photograph, where they would be going and what she wanted to visit. Knowing that photography is restricted, she packed light, only bringing one camera body and two lenses so she wouldn’t draw too much attention to herself as a photographer.
Despite what she researched and her packing tactics, she was immediately identified as a photographer and her time in North Korea sharply contrasted her time in China.
Upon arriving in Pyongyang, she was assigned a guide who rarely left her side. Chris and others in their group were told explicitly what they could and couldn’t photograph and were not permitted to venture outside their hotel without guides. When they did go out, Chris and the rest of the group were normally only allowed take “a few steps from the tour bus” under close supervision.
Chris learned in the first couple of days that she needed to shift the focus of her project.
“I simply couldn’t get access to any subjects. My project evolved into trying to capture people in daily life, but with the ever-present backdrop of the Kims… A wedding celebration, an entertainment club, a school, co-operative farming, even a subway platform, images of the Kims were everywhere.” Chris says.
The fact that Chris previously lived in South Korea, held an American passport, and carried professional photo gear all led to her having a higher level of scrutiny and attention than some of the other tour members.
“A guide almost always sat next to me and repeated the mantra of ‘no photos’ and ‘close the (bus) curtain’. It was tough being so reigned in.”
The longer Chris remained in North Korea, the more she felt like she was viewing a staged production for her benefit. It was as if the tour group’s only purpose was to show how prosperous and happy life is in North Korea.
If their tour in North Korea was the production, Pyongyang was the set. Postured as a thriving capital city, Pyongyang felt eerily uninhabited. Chris saw eight-lane highways leading in and out of the city, but without a car in sight. The bus would travel past department stores and supermarkets full of goods, but they were always deserted.
“Where is everybody? Who’s buying this stuff!?” Chris remembers thinking to herself. Unfortunately, she was not permitted to photograph any of this.
This misinformation spread by her tour guides added a layer of surrealism to Chris’s experience. She remembers being told unprompted that prisons in North Korea were non-existent and unnecessary because the only crimes people ever committed were traffic violations.
When a genuine moment did occur, it stuck out in sharp relief to the rest of Chris’ experiences. At one point, the tour group visited a park and witnessed a wedding party.
“I remember moments of sincere happiness reflected on the people’s faces… They didn’t dance to entertain us. It was real life, not a show, and I had the rare opportunity to try and talk to locals.”
Chris felt she was able to make some genuine images of this event and she was able to speak with the locals.
Her photographs paint a nuanced picture of North Korea. On one hand, the images were like the tip of an iceberg – only showing the very surface of daily life. They seem to showcase a level of sterility and apparent leader worship in a society that’s highly oppressive by Western standards.
On the other hand, Chris’ pictures begin to dip into the everyday life many people don’t imagine existing in North Korea.
Part of what makes the photos so compelling is what’s not pictured. There’s a disconnect people feel when viewing so many pictures that look so performative. The ever-present specter of the Kims also leads the viewer to question the actual level of veneration the average North Korean feels for those leaders. People’s minds automatically try to fill in the missing pieces – to imagine what’s not pictured.
But as Chris notes, that’s only part of the puzzle.
“People are so accustomed to imagining the place as one giant gulag, that the idea of people dancing happily, going to work or school and looking relaxed, seems surprising to the viewer. ”
In the end, Chris was understandably frustrated by the fact that she was so restricted in what she could photograph, but she took to heart that she was able to connect on a basic human level with some of the locals. She is hopeful that the country will become open so she can return and photograph the project she initially intended and tell a more in-depth story.
“It really gave me hope that one day, when they are able to interact with the rest of the world, the way back will be easier than we tend to imagine.”