September 9, 2011

By Carlos Barria

I never imagined that a simple image on a piece of paper could have the power to transform someone’s suspicious look into an expression of surprise — the kind of surprise you might see on a child’s face as they watch their first magic trick.

But I saw this transformation a week ago, when I joined a group of journalists on a trip to North Korea. I brought a Polaroid camera along with the idea of taking a few portraits. I wanted to be able to offer these portraits to the subjects themselves.

I’ve always liked the idea of trading something with the subject of a photograph. I take his or her picture, or image, and in some circumstances, it seems appropriate to give something back. I can’t pay them, so ideally I send them a copy of the picture by email.

Knowing North Koreans have little access to the Internet, I brought a Polaroid camera instead. When I used it to take portrait pictures, I took two snaps. Then I gave one Polaroid to the person in the picture, and I kept the second for myself; one copy for them, one copy for me.

But, I didn’t count on the incredible expressions that would come over North Koreans’ faces as they watched the Polaroids slowly emerge.

In a port where we boarded a cruise ship, I saw a group of local workers taking a break. I walked over to them with my cameras and they looked at me as if I were an alien. I took two Polaroids of the group of workers; one for them and one for me. I gave them the Polaroid but they couldn’t figure out what it was right away. Then I took it back and pretended to do a little magic on the paper. The image started to emerge. All their faces cracked into astonished smiles. Before I could get their names, their boss waved all the workers away. He apparently didn’t want me to talk to them.

Walking out of a restaurant, I saw 28-year-old Pakn Okn Hai, standing in silence behind the counter of a sparse gift shop. With very primitive gestures (I don’t speak Korean) I asked her if it would be possible to shoot a picture of her and she accepted. I gave her the Polaroid, which usually takes 20 seconds to reveal an image. As her portrait was appearing she opened her mouth in surprise and then she gave me a big smile.

Later, when I asked through an interpreter if she’d ever had a picture of herself, she said, “No, I have never had a picture of myself”.

Ko Un Byol, 22-years-old, worked as a hostess at the local auditorium in Rason City. She wore a beautiful, traditional red dress and I photographed her in front of a painting of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. When I asked her through a translator if she had ever had a picture of herself she answered, “Visitors take pictures of me all the time, but I have never had a picture of myself”.

(REUTERS/Courtesy of Chai Hin Goh)

When I was shooting this portrait a government minder approached and told me that if I wanted to photograph the Great Leader, I would have to shoot it from further away, since it is “disrespectful” to take a picture of him without fitting his full image in the frame. He didn’t mention the woman I was actually photographing.

I was photographing a portrait of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il when a hotel porter approached to correct me about taking a proper picture of North Korean leaders. He said I had to shoot the picture from directly in front of the portrait; another rule, I suppose, that governs how North Koreans should behave around images of their leader. Then he offered to take a picture of me.

I accepted, and I asked if I could take his portrait picture. He said yes, and I gave him a copy.

Two cleaning ladies at the hotel in Kumgang were very curious about my colleague Ng Han Guan, from the Associated Press, as he edited pictures on his laptop in the lobby. I rushed to my room to get my camera and capture them. I shot their portrait three times; one Polaroid for each of them and one for me. They posed standing, and then they asked me for another shot, so I took another. This time they were more relaxed and more natural.

I felt they were enjoying the moment. They were happy to have the photographs, in the same way photography makes me happy.

Before boarding our cruise ship, I photographed a group of young residents who were brought by local authorities for a departure ceremony. I photographed the group and gave a Polaroid to someone in the front row. As the ship left the port, I saw them circulating the picture among themselves, so everyone could see it at least once.


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I love this story and I didn’t want to believe, they really haven’t known anything polaroid technology… That’s terrible. They are so far from the real world. How will N. Korean people survive, when their system falls – because it will happen sooner or later. Rest of the world must be very sensitive to them.

Posted by Shenzen | Report as abusive

Nice work, Carlos. Your idea to use Polaroids and share them with each person you photographed was ingenious.

Posted by jennfer | Report as abusive

Very special, Carlos. Thanks for your efforts. Can’t imagine how many people will be affected by your visit.

Posted by MaxAir | Report as abusive

I did not know that Polaroid cameras still existed. I used them a lot in the seventies and still remember the acidic smell of the developer. What wonderful idea! You made those guys’ day!

Posted by PeterMelzer | Report as abusive

@Shenzen, I am sure you will find other people in the world who are not familiar with Polaroids. Age might have something to do with it.

Posted by john6250 | Report as abusive

Looks like Polaroid has a newfound market!

Silliness ( or investing) ideas aside, this is the type of blog that is actually interesting. It has pictures, and it focuses on alot people, not just the blogger, and it humanizes the North Korean topic. Kudos for an excellent blog post.

Posted by ReaderAtSunrise | Report as abusive

I think they had never had -any- pictures of themselves, Polaroid or other. We take for granted ubiquitous access to image capturing and sharing. I agree with Shenzen… when DPRK finally does collapse, the workaday folks are in for such a shock from so many things we take as commonplace.

Another great photoessay from Mr. Barria.

Posted by scjohng | Report as abusive

Amazing journey and wonderful photos. The story behind the story is an even better story! I saw some of Barria’s photos on (the boy violinist in particular) and wondered – is it possible to get a print somehow (is it?) and wound up here. sogohaseoyo! (nice work)

Posted by blese | Report as abusive

You are simply phenomenal. I have spent a great deal of time as a US Soldier on the DMZ and my perception was not the greatest. The nights out in the middle of no where listening to the faint sounds of music from propaganda village only served to fuel my imagination. That said, you brought a depth to this, I hadn’t previously seen or felt. Just awesome!!!!!

Posted by Water_Garden038 | Report as abusive

Giving away instant prints is such a nice thing to do, great job! I did the same thing last month in the slums in Uganda and had a similarly exciting experience.
I used a Packfilm Polaroid wich doesn’t let you watch the picture develop. In that (sometimes awkwardly silent) minute of waiting for the print, often people were about to walk away because they didn’t know they could take the picture with them.

Posted by geow | Report as abusive