Looking for moments beneath North Korea's 'orchestrated pageantry'

Updated 14th September 2016
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Looking for moments beneath North Korea's 'orchestrated pageantry'
Written by By Benazir Wehelie, Special to CNN
On her first trip to North Korea, one of the first photographs Maye-E Wong shot for The Associated Press was of kids Rollerblading at Kim Il Sung Square.
"It definitely was not a scene I expected to see out of North Korea, since I feel Rollerblading is a very Western pastime," Wong said in an email. "So that was when I first started to see how, despite their living in a closed society, North Koreans play and have access to the things that we enjoy as well."
Wong captured that photograph in July 2013 and ever since, she has been the AP's lead photographer for North Korea. But before she traveled to the reclusive country, Wong, perhaps like much of the world, had a hard time imagining what life there would be like.
The "Hermit Kingdom" is, after all, a place Human Rights Watch considers "among the world's most repressive countries," and it typically only makes headlines for claiming to have conducted nuclear tests or allegedly publicly executing top country officials.
"News headlines do not show the face of the people," Wong said. "I hope that audiences can see something in my pictures that they can relate to on some level."
Photographer Maye-E Wong
Photographer Maye-E Wong Credit: Charles Dharapak/AP
As a news photographer based in Asia, Wong sometimes covered events that involved North Korean athletes and diplomats. What struck her, she said, was seeing what members of North Korean delegations would wear on their chest: "red leader pins" showing the country's then-leader, Kim Il Sung.
In January 2012, the AP opened its first bureau in the capital, Pyongyang, and today it is the only US-based media organization that has been allowed to maintain a constant presence in North Korea. The AP's coverage of the country, however, is monitored by the North Korean government, which is now under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.
Wong is from Singapore and travels to North Korea about once a month for 10 days at a time, and works with Eric Talmadge, the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief and writer. They also work with a North Korean reporter and photographer.
News headlines do not show the face of the people. I hope that audiences can see something in my pictures that they can relate to on some level.
Photographer Maye-E Wong
"The biggest challenge which I've had to accept is not being able to go where I want to go when I want to go there, because we must travel with a government guide," Wong said. "I can't just walk on the street by myself with my camera and make photos."
Wong and Talmadge time their visits to news events, and sometimes they are able to make trips outside the capital into the countryside and other cities and towns. Regardless of where they are going, they have to put in requests and negotiate with the government for the activities or areas they would like to see.
"When I photograph events in North Korea centered around anniversaries of the war or the founding of the country, or (I am) brought on some tour of a hospital, school or factory, they are very well managed events," Wong said. "Everything seems to be perfect. There is little room for the unexpected. But after working in a few of these managed contexts, I try to look for moments beneath the surface and all the orchestrated pageantry."
It can be tough to find such moments, Wong said, but she adds that while her coverage may be limited because of government monitoring, she and those she works with have developed a mutual respect for each other's jobs.
In her images over the past three years, Wong has been able to show all kinds of moments out of the East Asian country, moments that go beyond the headlines we have become so used to. We see the country's people playing volleyball at a water park and waiting outside a restaurant in the rain. We see them directing traffic and sweeping stairs.
"When I am looking for street features and have opportunities to shoot North Koreans doing what they do, sometimes they don't understand why I am taking their photo," Wong said. "They don't see what is so interesting about what they are doing."
Wong, who has covered everything from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the political protests in Hong Kong, to the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, said there are certain efforts she has made that have helped her as a photojournalist.
"North Koreans are brought up in a society where they believe they are still at war and America is the enemy," she said. "There may be some degree of ease when they see me as an Asian woman photojournalist. But it is all about your demeanor. If you approach people with a smile, and break the ice with some local language, they will be more receptive to you. That goes with working anywhere. Not just North Korea."
The photographer said that because North Koreans are not accustomed to having their picture taken on the street, at times she will shoot out of a car window. That way, Wong can capture more candid moments. She also tries her best to work discretely by shooting with smaller cameras.
"I will usually use Canon 5D Mark III bodies with fixed focal length lenses when I am shooting features, because it is compact and doesn't draw attention to me," she said. "I also enjoy working with a small Sony mirrorless camera, because I think it is a less intimidating camera to walk around with."
Through her work, Wong has been able to learn not only about the people who live in North Korea, but also has been able to observe the distinctive details of the country.
"I feel that North Korea is frozen in time," Wong said. "A lot of their products are from China, but it seems to be from an earlier time. When we travel out of the city, the countryside is so untouched. There is very little development and it's very rural. The views can be breathtaking and it's actually quiet in the countryside."
Wong added that she has noticed some changes over her time there as well, including an increase of taxis in Pyongyang and the occasional traffic jam.
One of the more memorable experiences she has had, though, was at a photo exhibition in the capital, which showed North Koreans how visiting AP photojournalists -- foreigners -- saw the country and its people.
On the final day of the exhibition, Wong said a contingent of respected senior North Korean press photographers -- a group of middle-aged men -- came to see it.
Everything seems to be perfect. There is little room for the unexpected. But after working in a few of these managed contexts, I try to look for moments beneath the surface and all the orchestrated pageantry.
Photographer Maye-E Wong
"I was introduced to them as the current lead AP photographer, and they were surprised to know that some of the images in the show that caught their eye were taken by me -- a foreign woman," she said. "With my limited Korean we exchanged pleasantries and even talked about cameras and lenses. I immediately earned 'street cred' from them and was promised to always have a spot saved for me at the next big North Korean press event."
But what Wong has is much more than "street cred" for her visually stunning images of life in a country so inaccessible to most people -- including other journalists. At the core of her photojournalism is a deep understanding for the context under which she works, and perhaps an equally deep desire to represent that context in a way that is thought-provoking and eye-opening.
"In photojournalism it is important that we do not misrepresent," Wong said. "I have to know when I am being presented with propaganda, and try to look beneath the surface. It's a privilege to have the access, but I must be fair in my visual reporting. That's a big responsibility."
Maye-E Wong is an Associated Press photographer based in Singapore. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. An exhibition of her work is on display at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film in Singapore from September 13 through October 15.