This Photo Series Offers a Surreal and Often Unseen Glimpse into North Korea

We naturally want to look at that which we are not allowed to see. Stories, images, footage from inside North Korea always garners our hushed attention as we look into a place beyond our knowing, kept from our true understanding. What is continually mesmerizing is the surreal and pristine quality in which every inch is kept, enough to give you chills, the spaces like perfectly decorated cakes no one will ever get to eat.

Photographer Julia brings us these images from her time in the DPRK, an experience in which she used her photography to stay groundedWorried that her lenses might be confiscated, she traveled with minimal equipment: a DSLR body and 24mm lens. But, to her surprise, she was able capture with relative freedom and thus let us see in as well. In regards to this collection of images she says, “I started treating every image like a film still from a movie lacking a main character.”  

What follows are her thoughts and her moments inside perfectly kept landscapes, candy-colored locker rooms, empty streets, and nights that did nothing but hush.

My favorite image is the one of a hair salon. In the DPRK, salons are only permitted to give certain officially approved haircuts, and each of the haircuts is numbered.

While the mass dances, musical performances and parades I saw were spectacular, I also found it a bit melancholic since there was no room for individuality. That goes for virtually every aspect of a person’s life in the DPRK. You don’t find names on name tags, but rather the role a person fills, e.g., “Waiter” or “Salesperson.” As for your hair, you can be a 1-15.

Pyongyang is extremely lively, but as a visitor, you get taken to a lot of places DPRK citizens don’t frequent or don’t have access to, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities to photograph people. I did, however, have plenty of opportunities to photograph amazing interiors and exteriors, and I started treating every image like a film still from a movie lacking a main character.

It was interesting how quickly certain things that seemed absurd at first, like having to bow to statues of Kim Jong-il, just became a normal, mundane part of the daily routine.

Speaking of statues, one thing I found especially odd was every statue of a present or past leader was always scaled just a few percent larger than real life, so you immediately felt there was something uncanny, but it took a while to put your finger on exactly what.

The people I met in the DPRK were curious, friendly and warm, and I felt safe at all times. While I’m happy I read several books about the DPRK before I went, it was very different than the picture I’d painted in my head. Even in the DPRK, people are just people.

My first night, while taking a photograph out the window of the hotel, I realized that it was completely quiet outside and there were almost no lights on anywhere, despite it being a Friday night. It was pretty surreal. Taking pictures became a way to stay grounded and remind myself, ‘I’m here, I’m experiencing this.’

It’s All Gucci…