A North Korean woman looks down at the city of Pyongyang from the top of the Tower of the Juche Idea
Since the 1948 creation of separate governments for North and South Korea after World War II, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North has remained behind an iron curtain, an isolated and secluded state. Our image of the country has been pieced together from pictures taken across the border at the DMZ, photographs provided by government news agencies or unauthorized surreptitious photographs taken by western photographers inside the country—until now.
In January, the Associated Press opened a bureau in Pyongyang for full news coverage within North Korea. AP’s Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder—who first traveled to North Korea as a pool photographer in January 2000 to cover the visit of Madeline Albright—has made a dozen trips to the country over the past 18 months as part of the negotiating team and on reporting trips with Jean H. Lee, AP bureau chief for the Koreas, taking photos each time. Guttenfelder’s approach to showing North Korea to the world has been shaped by his long and prestigious career with the AP.
Guttenfelder has just received two honors from the Overseas Press Club, which announced their annual awards this morning. The Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad, in magazines or books, and the Feature Photography Award for best feature photography, published in any medium on an international theme, recognize his recent work from last year’s Tsunami aftermath in Japan and his work inside North Korea.
In 1994, Guttenfelder traveled to the former Zaire to cover the Rwandan refugee crisis as a freelance photographer. “I thought if I ever wanted to do something more serious, this was it,” he says. Guttenfelder stayed in Africa for five years, stringing for the AP, among other outlets, and eventually became an AP staff photographer. He hasn’t lived in the States since. In the ensuing years, he has worked all over the world, from Kosovo to Israel and Iraq to Afghanistan. In 1999 he became AP’s Chief Asia photographer and moved to Japan.
Guttenfelder says when he first worked in Asia he wondered if he had made the right decision. “In the beginning it was really hard, I’d only ever covered conflict and had not done anything else,” he says. One of his first assignments was covering family reunions between North and South Koreans in Seoul. “I wasn’t used to taking photographs in an organized event surrounded by other photographers in such a modern context,” he says. “Now I look back and it was really important work. I only really spoke one language at that point—fighting, refugees and hard news—so it was an important transition for me.”
Fittingly then, when Guttenfelder was in Iraq during the U.S. invasion, he focused on trying to cover the Iraqi side of the war rather than embedding with U.S. troops. “I always thought of myself as the guy on the other side of things,” he says. Then, a year later, when Baghdad fell, Guttenfelder found himself confined to the Palestine Hotel and his role and means of covering the conflict changed again.
“We needed local photographers to cover the streets, someone who could bring back regular pictures of normal people’s lives,” he says. He solicited photographers, but found that they needed extensive training. Although the people Guttenfelder worked with barely knew the fundamentals of photography and worked with primitive equipment—including a camera that used floppy disks—they produced important work. Several of the regional photographers that Guttenfelder and his AP colleagues trained, Khalid Mohammed, Samir Mizban and Karim Kadim, became Pulitzer-Prize winning photographers when AP received the award for breaking news photography in 2005.
Iraq was not the only place Guttenfelder worked training and developing regional photographers; he also did so in Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine. His work in Afghanistan, which he considers the most important of his career, included the recruitment of Farzana Wahidy, the first Afghan woman to work as a news photographer after the fall of the Taliban. Between 2001 to 2010 Guttenfelder made at least 20 trips to Afghanistan, staying for as long as six months to a year at a time. Early on he covered the first election, and projects on the Afghan civilian side of things. But from 2007-2010 Guttenfelder focused on embeds and did multiple military trips including a stint in the Korengal Valley and was part of all of the major U.S. Marine operations into Helmand.
Guttenfelder eventually moved back to Japan in 2006, and he still lives there today. His first news photography in Japan came in March 2011, in the aftermath of the tsunami. Although his work there is highly regarded, he says he feels that his photographs could not capture the magnitude of what he saw.
Still, his experience with being dropped into a new place and quickly capturing the sense of its culture proved invaluable. “There is a known language to disaster pictures; you see the same things, people reaching through chaos, people reaching for food, a lot of emotion. Photographers were trying to find those pictures that existed in other places. It’s just not like that here. That’s just not how it is in Japan,” he says, noting that the emotionally moving picture embedded here, of a woman, on her knees, caressing and singing to her mother’s body, would seem subtle in another place but is a very “loud” picture for Japan.
Although he continues to be based in Japan, Guttenfelder has spent much of the past year in North Korea in preparation for the new AP bureau, which opened in January. Guttenfelder has been part of the negotiating team at meetings that have taken place in Pyongyang and New York over the last eighteen months. “At the first meeting, we left with an agreement that we would hold a photo exhibition and workshop and work towards an AP office in the country,” he says. The joint exhibition, Window on North Korea, on view earlier this month at the 8th Floor Gallery in New York, featured images from both AP and the KCNA archives and a workshop held in North Korea offered an opportunity for KCNA photographers get technical training, for the AP to recruit staff and for the two parties get to know one another.
“We are starting from zero in a system that is so different from anything we’ve done before,” he says. The photo exhibition and workshop were an overture to build trust and collaborate on something, and Guttenfelder has already begun working with a regional photographer, Kim Kwang Hyon. But the most interesting result of the collaboration is the opportunity it has afforded for Guttenfelder to photograph inside North Korea.
Although he is accompanied by a guide wherever he goes and has to request in advance where he wants to go, the daily life photographs that he has taken—often one-off shots made on the way to or from an event—provide a stark contrast to the highly orchestrated government news-agency photos that are more commonly seen out of North Korea.
Despite the normalcy portrayed in these photographs, Guttenfelder says they are actually the most important images because they paint a picture of a place that has been hitherto a mystery. And that can open the window for understanding in both directions. “At the beginning I would take a picture in the street of people standing waiting for the bus. I could tell they didn’t really understand and thought it looked bad, looked poor,” he says. “I would spend a lot of time explaining that people wait for the bus and commute to work everywhere in the world and that someone beyond North Korea could make a connection—that picture breaks down barriers.”
Recently, a select group of photojournalists from western agencies have been allowed into North Korea to cover the celebrations of the birth of the country’s Eternal President Kim II-sung and a missile launch. How long they will be able to stay is in question, but Guttenfelder and AP are committed for the long term. “It’s a really good time to have an office here and to see how things evolve,” he says. “I feel a huge responsibility because this is the first time the country has allowed this much access to one of us.”
Central Pyongyang at dusk through a hotel room window.
Light shines through a window on to a tank filled with goldfish inside an office at the Korean Central News Agency building in Pyongyang
Under a North Korean flag, residents of Pyongyang wait for public transportation
North Korean commuters are seen riding a bus in central Pyongyang
A pedestrian walks past a large apartment block in Pyongyang
A North Korean man rides a bike along the banks of the Pothong River in Pyongyang
North Koreans pay their respects before a monument of Kim Il-Sung at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang
North Koreans school girls walk hand in hand past a monument in Pyongyang
North Korean construction workers labor in the Mansudae area of Pyongyang
North Korean women are pictured working in a thread factory in Pyongyang
A North Korean student learns to drive a tractor on a computerized driving simulator at the Samjiyon Schoolchildren's Palace in Samjiyon, North Korea
A man walks past a building in Pyongyang where a picture of North Korea's late leader Kim Il-Sung hangs on its outer wall
A woman looks at monkeys behind a glass enclosure at the central zoo in Pyongyang
Workers carry painted doors along a road in Mangyongdae, North Korea
Portraits of North Korea's late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hang on a wall at a children's school of performing arts in Pyongyang
Children look through a subway car window in Pyongyang
A North Korean soldier stands at a check point seen from a train heading to North Phyongan Province, about 50 kilometers (35 miles) south of the border town of Sinuiju along North Korea's west coast
North Korean soldiers tour the grounds of the birthplace of the late President Kim Il-Sung at Mangyongdae, North Korea
The hoof of a deer—used as a door handle—hangs on the door of the small cabin that is said to have been the home of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, and the birthplace of his son and late leader Kim Jong-Il at what was a secret military camp during the fight against the Japanese at the foot of Mount Paektu, North Korea
a North Korean soldier working as a guide walks through a forest at the foot of Mount Paektu, North Korea
A man clears snow from the base of a monument at the Samjiyon Grand Monument area in Samjiyon, North Korea at the base of Mount Paektu
Snow blankets farm fields on the outskirts of Pyongyang
People work in a field outside of Kaesong, North Korea
A North Korean man rides a bicycle on the grounds of a communal apple farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang
A North Korean man rests near a farm field along a highway outside the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, North Korea
A young North Korean dancer leaps by as North Korean girls put on panda bear costumes as they prepare to perform at a gathering at a park to celebrate the 99th anniversary of the late leader Kim Il-Sung's birthday in Pyongyang
A North Korean girl uses her digital camera to take a photograph of her friend dancing at a gathering at a park to celebrate the 99th anniversary of the late leader Kim Il-Sung's birthday
A young girl stands on floral-print carpet inside the Pyongyang Children's Palace in Pyongyang
A North Korean woman peers out of an elevator while speaking on an in-house phone at a library in Pyongyang
A bouquet of flowers sits on a table in front of a painted mural on the wall of a restaurant in Pyongyang
North Korean ushers peer into the concert hall before the start of a performance by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang
North Koreans look through the performance program before the start of a concert by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang
North Korean girls sing a song entitled "Generalissimo Kim Il Sung Danced With Us" at the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace in Pyongyang
North Korean soccer fans react after their team missed a goal during a World Cup qualifying match between North Korea and Uzbekistan, in Pyongyang
Women perform a dance routine with badminton rackets at an event to mark the birthday of Kim Il Sung at a park in Pyongyang, North Korea
A guide gives a lecture in front of a diorama showing the Korean War's 1950 battle of Taejon as she gives a tour of the War Museum in Pyongyang
Fireworks explode over the heads of North Korean soldiers lined up in formation at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang during a parade of thousands of soldiers commemorating the 70th birthday of the late Kim Jong-Il
A North Korean stands at attention as others cheer during the unveiling of a new bronze statue depicting the late leader Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il-Sung at Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang
A large screen shows video, recorded during the period of mourning following the death of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, during a concert in Pyongyang to commemorate his death and what would have been his 70th birthday
North Korean residents of the capital city mingle on the side of the street in Pyongyang
A song and video showing the launch of the North Korean "Unha-2" rocket plays on karaoke stage inside a restaurant in Pyongyang
A group of journalists walk down a road in front of North Korea's Unha-3 rocket, slated for liftoff at Sohae Satellite Station.
North Koreans, lit with red light, look on with delight as they watch a fireworks display along the Taedong River in Pyongyang to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung
North Korean civilians, some weeping, wave flowers as they look up at North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, unseen, at the end of a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung
A North Korean woman with a pin of the late leader Kim Il Sung attached to her dress sits with fellow audience members at the "World Congress on the Juche Idea" in Pyongyang
North Korean soldiers ride by on horses in front of flower waving civilians during a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il-Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, far right, applauds with senior military officials as citizens wave flowers at an unveiling ceremony for statues of the late leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang
Two North Korean officials look up at a crowd of military members seated in a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party
Images of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung and Mt. Paektu appear on a screen behind a choir during a concert in Pyongyang
A man and a boy pose for a picture in front of portraits of the late leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il at a festival for the "Kimilsungia" flower to mark 100 years since the birth of North Korea's late leader in Pyongyang