Matt Kuleusz on what it’s like to photograph the “human side” of North Korea
For the last few years, the Australian photographer has been documenting the other side of what life is like in North Korea.
- Ayla Angelos
- 5 May 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
It’s no secret that North Korea heavily regulates any form of photojournalism. With a censorship system put in place to keep everything under control, there’s a limited amount of information coming out of the country – and what does make it out is never less than favourable. However, this doesn’t completely restrict all means of photography, nor does it stop you from sharing your travel pictures on social media. Instead, there are rules to abide, like avoiding taking pictures of the military, construction sites or the leader’s statues and portraits.
Matt Kuleusz, a documentary photographer from Melbourne, found himself “lucky” enough to work as a tour guide in North Korea from 2016 to 2019. Here, he visited eight out of the nine provinces of the country with Young Pioneer Tours, and had visited each over 60 times during this period. “I’ve always had an obsessive nature when it comes to documenting things,” he tells It’s Nice That, “so I guess when coupled with a strong sense of identifying as a ‘creative person’, the desire to photograph whatever I’m doing in life comes quite naturally.”
Before traversing across seas to the most heavily guarded border in the globe, Matt had already garnered a strong fascination with North Korea. He devoured every book, documentary and media that he could put his hands to and, when documenting his own experience, he felt somewhat of a responsibility to think of a “young version of [himself]” and the imagery that he might want to see of life in this area of the world. Then, after visiting the country for the first time in 2014 on an organised tour, that’s when he decided to make the move – living in Beijing at the time and taking tour groups to North Korea on board a 24-hour train. A typical year as such would generally consist of spending six months in North Korea and five in Beijing, and one month spent going back and forth on that 24 hour train.
Rather than attempting to breach the restrictions in place, Matt sought to show a “multi-faceted” and a “human side” to the country. This is a response to the over saturated media imagery that depicts the “good stepping soldiers” and Kim Jong Un “looking at things”; instead, Matt strove to depict the other elements of what life is like in North Korea, offering an insight into the individuals who live here – “the unique aesthetics of North Korea.”
Additionally, Matt’s interests in Soviet-era brutalist architecture and North Korea’s architecture, interior design and fashion has had a strong influence on his photography style. “There’s a timelessness about the fashion and design too – the new style of North Korean architecture is something like a 1960s version of ‘the future’ and there’s an otherworldliness to how everything looks and feels.” This is especially relevant in the capital of Pyongyang, where there’s not a single stone out place, not a single advertisement and the city has a “very surreal movie-set-like appearance in its attention to detail.”
Shooting on a variety of disposable cameras for their nostalgic and vintage feel, Matt recalls how North Korea has a “very Wes Anderson vibe” about it, due to its object placement, design and symmetry, as well as its plentiful use of pastel colours found throughout. And, as expected, photographing in the country was always going to have its challenges. “However, it’s generally not as strict as most people think,” Matt adds. “Shooting anything involving any of the leaders is generally touchy,” he continues, stating how when visiting Mansudae Grand Monument – “or any bronze monuments of the leaders throughout the country” – you’re instructed to include the entire statue in the frame. Additionally, some tourists sites and museums restrict photography, and there are various check points throughout the country that are also forbidden.
“Generally speaking though, North Koreans are pretty shy, private people, and the biggest challenge I would find when taking groups is that once North Koreans see a group of 10-15 tourists approaching with their giant DSLR cameras they would turn around and walk in the opposite direction,” he says. “There is definitely a general distrust or uncertainty of the outside world and a daily significant percentage of tourists I would take on tour would often confuse their trip with being on a ‘human safari’ and forget that North Koreans are humans going about their day.”
As a result, Matt has spent years building trust and relationships with his subjects – he’s also mastered the technique of shooting quick and with subtlety, moving fast with his camera at his hip. His repertoire now consists of “literally thousands” of imagery taken over the last few years, including intimate portraits, ceremonious events and moments of everyday life. One of which shows Pyongyangites dancing and relaxing in Moran Hill, the city’s central park, during a national holiday. Depicting locals enjoying a day off, the park “comes alive” with families and friends, dancing and enjoying themselves outside – “which is surprising to a lot of travellers who mostly expect North Korea to be all doom and gloom”.