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Jeudi, 20 Octobre 2011 12:02

An American Tourist in North Korea

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When Sam Gellman booked a trip to North Korea, he knew people would be interested in seeing the photos he brought back. But he had no idea the work would go semi-viral.

Over the past month, Gellman’s North Korea set on Flickr has received more than 220,000 hits from people across the globe wanting to get a glimpse of one of the world’s most secluded nations.

Gellman, who is an experienced travel photographer but makes his living working in financial services in Hong Kong, said all the attention has been instructive.

“I think that the world is really just intrigued with what normal life looks like in North Korea,” he said.

Some of Gellman’s most popular North Korean photos are from the Mass Games, a choreographed spectacle held on special occasions with thousands of performers moving in unison to show nationalistic unity. The images capture the sheer enormity of the games along with the precisely calculated symmetry that he said is intended to promote the idea of the group over the individual.

Gellman said the event, while visually striking, was clearly meant to deliver this message to tourists and is actually one of the required stops for Americans who are let into the country. It was one of the few places where his North Korean guides encouraged him to take pictures.

Some of Gellman’s other photos, however, show a quieter or more private side of life.

“What other place can you take a picture of waitress or kids playing and get 30,000 hits on Flickr,” he said.

Gellman’s guides were not as enthusiastic about his public photos. While they didn’t prevent him from taking pictures, he said it was obvious they were nervous every time he picked up his camera.

“The guides really wanted us to have a good time, but it got weird if we had our camera out for too long,” he said.

The trip to North Korea was surprisingly simple to book. After striking out with a few agencies he found through Wikitravel, Gellman finally came across Koryo Tours out of Beijing who had him flying into North Korea just three weeks after he contacted them. After a brief orientation the morning of his travel he was off. When he landed in Pyongyang he was greeted at the airport by mandatory tour guides who doubled as handlers.

The itinerary for the trip was decided well in advance and allowed for little deviation, with even an unscheduled morning jog considered a significant transgression. Tourists are to remain within eye-sight of their handlers at all times.

Gellman said he saw his fair share of nationalistic propaganda and his pictures capture the Eastern-bloc aesthetic we’re used to seeing. Overall, however, it’s the quotidian life he captures that make his photos stand out.

“It was such an interesting place to visit and is clearly different from anything we know,” he said. “But at the same time you realize that no matter where you go, people are all very similar.”

To see more of Gellman’s work from North Korea, please visit his Flickr page.


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