“I had the chance to open the doors a little”: Stephan Gladieu photographs the people of North Korea

The photographer talks us through his work in North Korea, detailing what it was like to gain access to a country largely hidden from the world.

16 February 2021

Preferring solitude, Stephan Gladieu refers to himself as being far from a “social animal”. Instead, he takes pictures – a medium that allows him to express himself, and to explore new environments without the limits of introversion.

So you might be surprised to hear, then, that Stephan chose a career in war journalism, travelling the world from Europe to Asia and the Middle East. In his earlier days as a war reporter, he travelled to Romania in 1989 at the age of 20. During which he documented daily life in a dictatorship, before travelling to Afghanistan aiming to find the trace of the Kyrgyz people on the border of China. The civil war intensified there, and he stayed for two more years before heading to Sarajevo, Iraq, Haiti and Armenia to continue his war photography.

This was a short while ago, and the French photographer still continues his work in the press. He also tends to dabble in a bit of luxury photography too, and has had works published in various books and shown in a wide mix of international exhibitions. But his work has started to shift slightly, where his imagery focusses less on the conflict and complications of the world, and more so the humanistic side. “It’s people that attract me,” he tells It’s Nice That, “so more and more I turn to portrait.”

Recently, Stephan travelled to North Korea with his guides and, in doing so, has compiled a fascinating series of photographs. He’s always been interested in visiting North Korea, largely for the fact that he hadn't heard many stories about the people. “Never about the 25 million inhabitants, a kind of ghost of the modern world,” he says. “My wish was to create a portrait of North Korean society, to give it a face.” And, expectedly, it look a long time and some lengthy convincing to get there; five trips and three years of long negotiations about entering all of the places he wanted to have access to. “I managed to make myself more or less understandable and to create a bond of trust, because I was very predictable, static and controllable. I mainly played on the enormous gap between our cultural, historical, pictorial and social referents. That’s what the whole idea of this series is based on; to use the control I was undergoing to make it a space of freedom, narrow but indisputable.”


Stephan Gladieu: North Koreans (Copyright © Stephan Gladieu, 2020)

In his series, Stephan is offering an honest glimpse into North Korea. This is can be seen through his documentation of real life people, frozen for a moment amongst real life places and scenarios. What surprised him on his journey, however, was the lack of personal portraiture, family photographs or “room for individuality” – “it does not exist”. Not to mention how clean and orderly the country was. This gave the aesthetic a perfectionist backdrop, which he found slightly difficult to work with. “It gives this surreal setting that you find in every town and village, dependent on the financial means, but you always find the same spirit,” he says. “For a photographer who plays between reality and unreality, the terrain was so conducive to my photography.”

One location that Stephan wanted to visit was the shooting range. “It was a small victory to be allowed to enter it,” he says, noting how this is where military men in civilian clothes do their exercises. He chose a subject to photograph, set up the frame and was told that he wasn’t allowed to continue. Confused and disappointed, his guides then suggested to ask the hostesses of the shooting centre to pose for him instead, “since they themselves train here daily,” he says. They arrived with two wooden boxes containing “surrealist pistols” and posed in front of the target, “in a gesture that goes beyond the caricature of fiction.”

Stephan continues to point out another moment, while photographing a female worker on a production line. He was taken to visit the factory, which turned out to be an indoor swimming pool on the rooftop. “These anecdotes perfectly illustrate the path my photographs quest has taken,” he says. “Each time the North Koreans intervened to prevent me from taking an image, I found myself taking a portrait that was unimaginable for me. Their absolute quest for perfection perfectly served my work.”

This photographer’s work in North Korea has reached fruition, and the series has been turned into a book, published by Actes Sud. It’s a humbling display of photographs that depict a largely unseen side of the country, yet much of it still remains a mystery. “I made this series to give a face to the people who have been living for centuries under very restrictive regimes far removed from ours,” he concludes. “I had the chance to open the doors a little. I hope that my audience will appreciate this work."

GalleryStephan Gladieu: North Koreans (Copyright © Stephan Gladieu, 2020)

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Stephan Gladieu: North Koreans (Copyright Stephan Gladieu, 2020)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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