I Introduced Polaroid To North Korea, And It Made People Open Up And Tell Their Stories
I first went to North Korea in 2008. At this time, there were no mobile phones in this Hermit Kingdom, and the only pics people were taking were thanks to the official photographers who stood at the entrance of the main monuments to sell some photo souvenirs to visitors.
I first thought about making Polaroids just as a kind of artistic work, to keep the dull colors of this country, but quickly I discovered this camera was the best way to make contacts with the North Korean people and to break the ice.
Every time I was taking a polaroid, I was taken another one I offered to my North Korean "model". So many times, this allowed me to see life in North Korean in a very different way, and to start some conversations, through my guide, of course. Something that was not allowed in 2008.
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I had the chance to meet some triplets in Nampho orphanage. There are a lot of twins and triplets in orphanages. The official reason is that parents cannot afford to raise 2 or 3 kids at same time. Some say that they represent a kind of magic for the North Korean dictatorship and that the parents do not have the choice to keep them at home. I took a polaroid of the triplets and asked the orphanage director to give the picture to the parents, but I understood they were living very far away and that there were few chances they could receive the picture of their children.
In Pyongyang, I took the polaroids of the girls working at a restaurant, then the owner came and asked for one, in English! She was the wife of a high rank North Korean diplomat. She had lived in NYC for 2 years. She found the Americans very fat but nice people. She became very talkative as she was so happy with her picture.
Miss Kim, she was a perfect French speaking guide at the War Museum. I met her 5 times during my trips to the Communist state, she kept on telling me she learned French in Pyongyang university. In fact, I learned later that she spent her childhood in Algeria where her father was a diplomat. But for the propaganda it was better to say that you can learn perfect French in North Korea!
Her job is to sell some flowers that the visitors, including the tourists, will lay in front of the Leaders' statues in Mansudae hill in Pyongyang. 3 euros the flowers. As soon as you put the flowers on the monument, an old lady comes, take the flowers, and resells them!
Every new couple comes to Mansudea hill to pay respect to the dear Leaders' statues in Pyongyang on the day of their wedding. By looking at their face, this does not look like a happy time! They are very serious. The guide told me that they were moved to visit the statue of the Leader. But after seeing their faces on Polaroids, they started to smile and even laugh, forgetting the etiquette!
On a Sunday afternoon, on the Taedong river in Pyongyang, the North Koreans come to have a BBQ or a picnic, a very different atmosphere, with lots of Soju (rice alcohol) and lots of smiles.
Guards inside the subway taking care of the arrivals and departures of the wagons. Usually, they act like little robots, for the Polaroids they become humans!
In the countryside: bikes and farms. No cars, nothing else.
A picture taken in the countryside, as in Pyongyang, depending on the mood of the Leaders, riding a bike is not possible for women, not aesthetic. In the countryside, there is no choice to move from one point to another…
When visiting some houses, I asked the people where they wanted to stand for the picture, everybody answered: "Below the dear Leaders' portraits". Once, I had to do the Polaroid again as the Leaders portraits were cut. Unacceptable.
A cook in a restaurant in Pyongyang with a Hello Kitty apron. She does not know about this character, she thought it was North Korean.
During a visit in a kindergarten in Hamhung, in the sleeping room for the kids.
Two North Korean guides at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum (aka the War Museum) in Pyongyang. For two hours they explained with tons of lies the glorious victories of North Korea against the American imperialists, very seriously. Then when I suggested to make a Polaroid, they became very shy and smiling.
A North Korean colonel with a soldier on the DMZ, in the part where you can see South Korea through binoculars. First, he refused to pause, but when he saw the Polaroid of one soldier, he ordered me to take one of him too.
My guide asked me to throw away this Polaroid as I took the picture from the back. It is forbidden to take the picture with this angle in North Korea. Not respectful for the bronze heroes.
Waitress playing accordion in a restaurant. This is a tradition, once they have finished serving food, they all come to sing. Pyongyang.
Nurses in a kindergarden Nampo.
Woman in a park.
A colonel on the DMZ. He was speaking about peace, about the oppression of the Americans, and the day after the meeting North Korea was making a nuclear test! He asked to have one Polaroid in front of the South Korean building to show his wife where he was working.
Women working in a Highway restaurant near Pyongyang. They see very few people during the day, it's a boring job. First, I thought they were flight attendants. This was the first time they saw a Polaroid, so I had to make one for each one.
Woman playing bowling in Pyongyang.
View from the Yanggakdo hotel in Pyongyang. In 2008, you could sleep with the window open, there were no cars at this time in town.
Nurse in a kindergarden, Nampo.
Waitresses in a restaurant in Pyongyang.
The DMZ from the North Korean side. As there were no South Korean soldiers or American soldiers on the other side, the guide said that they were afraid to be seen. Cowards, he said.
Woman working in a subway in Pyongyang.
Accordion classroom in Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace, in Pyongyang. The visit that every tourist does. The guide opens the door and for 30 seconds you can see accordion, dance, singing, calligraphy… The guide keeps on telling: "We are late, we are late…"
Decoration in the bowling in Pyongyang. A good place to visit to see North Korea having fun and having dates. Tinder is not yet in North Korea.
Young guard in a museum in Pyongyang.
North Korean Army Parade in Pyongyang. It was a rehearsal. Each man has a number on his uniform and an officer shouts orders to the ones who are not in the good tempo.
Worker woman in the mineral water factory of Nampo. The guide was so proud to show us this factory that visited President Mitterand before he was elected in France. But in fact the sound of the machines was incredibly loud and aggressive, and everybody was sorry for this young worker who had to stand there during our touristic visit. She was forbidden to leave her position to take the Polaroid I did. She had it at the end of his day job.
Woman in front of flowers in Pyongyang.
Monument in Pyongyang.
In 2008, there was just the statue of Kim Il Sung in Mansudae hill, then they put the Kim Jong il statue when he died.
Mansudae hill. It is not common to have nobody there...
Colonel at the DMZ.