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”.
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.