By Paul McKay
I was in a pub when we decided to go to North Korea.
My friend had received a Facebook message from one of his running buddies, sharing the incredible news that once a year Pyongyang (the capital city) hosts a marathon. It is open to international tourists who enter the country with Chinese tour companies, as well as local North Koreans.
I am not a big runner but I was immediately intrigued by the idea of it as a photography destination and subject. A couple of pints later and three of us had registered our interest with the tour company Koryo Group. It was happening!
Fast-forward six months – past some interesting conversations with family and work – and we are standing in Beijing international airport at 6am Chinese time. We have passports, visas and boarding passes in hand, and a mix of anticipation and nerves in our bellies.
More importantly I was also carrying two cameras. The advice from the tour company was not to look “too professional” with our photography gear. Photojournalists are not allowed into North Korea without special accreditation and there is always a risk that if tourists enter the country with multiple lenses and cameras then they will have them confiscated.
Based on this guidance I had left my Olympus OM-1 and assorted kit at home, and just brought my new LC-A+ and Fuji Instax 90 Neo with a jumble of B&W and colour films. The classic and flexible Ilford HP5, some Fuji Superia 400, and of course a few packs of Instax Mini Colour.
The itinerary of the trip was as follows:
- First weekend: Land on Saturday, prep and run the marathon on Sunday. The route started inside the Rungrado 1st May Stadium and proceeded through the city. We ended the afternoon watching a football match between “The Government” and “The Army”
- Monday-Friday: Tour Pyongyang and nearby countryside with stops for the DMZ, Nampho Dam, various museums, an overnight stay in Pyongsang and attend a show performed by the national circus
- Saturday: Get the overnight train from Pyongyang all the way back to Beijing, crossing at the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge
The rules for photography were relatively simple and only excluded about 10% of the entire trip:
- Don’t take photos of soldiers, military cars or government buildings
- Don’t take close-up photos of passers-by without asking first (i.e. be polite!)
- Don’t take photos at or near security checkpoints
- When in doubt, ask one of our North Korean tour guides
We had two guides with us at all times as well as a representative from the tour company and were never allowed to wander out of sight without permission. However they were both exceptionally friendly individuals – they stayed up drinking with us in the evenings, instigated a cross-cultural karaoke session on our tour bus, and were happy to answer any questions we had.
They also encouraged us to take lots of photos, saying “this is an important part of your visit!” In retrospect I wish I had taken some more adventurous films to take advantage of the freedom we were given: infrared maybe or Cinestill for a dramatic image!
The Pyongyang buildings were often grand and colourful. The Science District in particular had incredible tower blocks spaced along a boulevard that wouldn’t look out of place in Disneyland.
Outside of the city the landscape looked very much like rural areas in Vietnam or Thailand. Fieldhands worked the crops with children playing close by and bicycles served as the main mode of transport.
As the train pulled away from Pyongyang station on the final morning I was delighted that we’d made the time and energy for the trip. It was certainly not the most relaxing of holidays, but it was fascinating and challenging and fun.
On our return to Yorkshire we put on an exhibit at The Brunswick – under the banner of Koryo Collective we gave talks and answered questions. Over 300 attendees attended the exhibit over opening weekend which provided a wonderful opportunity for us to share some of our experiences, stories and photographs.
* Paul McKay is a film photographer and founder of Analogue Wonderland – an online store stocking over 180 films.