Prohibited photos from world’s most isolated country – Michal Huniewicz
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang Inhabitants of Pyongyang commuting.
Published: February 22, 2017
About Huniewicz’s trip to North Korea
A lot of attention was recently drawn to a series of photographs taken by London-based photographer Michal Huniewicz. These photographs are somewhat prohibited as they show the real side of North Korea.
The only way how tourists can North Korea
Tourists who want to visit North Korea are only allowed to do so through pre-arranged tours booked via travel agencies. When they arrive, there will be tour guides who will be with them at all times throughout their stay in the country. It is quite normal for tour guides to be assigned to tourists so as to ease their movements and make the tour a worthy experience but truthfully, the main job of tour guides in North Korea is to prevent tourists from interacting with locals, to prevent them from taking pictures and keep them away from areas where there is a high rate of poverty and unhappiness. Tourists are not allowed to take photos of soldiers and there are certain places where cameras are not allowed to be used.
Sometimes tourists can smuggle out unbiased photos
These tour guides take tourists to areas where they have things under control and properly managed. Although on rare occasions, tourists can get to take more unbiased photos of North Korea and smuggle them out which is just what Michal Huniewicz did.
Michal Huniewicz’s North Korea photos
His photos show citizens of North Korea living in abject poverty in a country that seems to be in a state of deadlock with no apparent signs of moving forward. According to the photographer, there was hardly anyone seen smiling. They either looked gloomy or their body language suggested that they were ready to obey the next order. Nobody showed much excitement at the sight of foreigners and it almost felt like they didn’t see them. In one of his photos, some of the citizens were seen sweeping pavements and public places under the supervision of soldiers. In others, waitresses were seen working in restaurants where propaganda images are shown on television throughout the day.
Border police was looking for ‘The Interview’
As part of the search conducted on tourists, the controversial Hollywood film, the Interview1 was checked for on laptops as it is banned in the country. Huniewicz did manage to get the photos out through small memory cards, lying about his camera and keeping a straight face.
Huniewicz would be thrilled to go back to the country when the current regime collapses but he thinks it would be unwise to go anytime soon. This is probably due to an American tourist, Otto Warmbier who got sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for stealing a poster from the same hotel Michal stayed. North Koreans have had their freedom of expression and will take away from them and through these photos, the world can have an idea of what is going on there.
Michal Huniewicz – Road to North Korea The difference between North Korea and China becomes even more apparent at night, when Dandong becomes a brilliant metropolis, while North Korea plunges into darkness. In the photo, the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which connects Dandong with the city of Sinuiju, North Korea
Michal Huniewicz – Road to North Korea This is where you board your train to North Korea. It then slowly moves across the [new] bridge, into North Korea, where a major customs check occurs.
Michal Huniewicz – Road to North Korea This was one of the most strange moments – when we finally arrived in Pyongyang. Through the curtains of the compartment window, we looked at a surreal scene that appeared like something out of a theatre in its perfection and artifice. Elegant men, beautiful women, walking in a simulated hurry, travelers without a reason (ours was the only train that day), all to impress us and so that the station doesn’t look empty. We arrived in North Korea.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang I think they were really proud of this area, as they were taking us there constantly.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang I find socialist architecture brutal and oppressive.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang There was never much traffic in Pyongyang. How were we supposed to participate in a car accident? …
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang A honeycomb of flats reminded me of socialist architecture in Eastern Europe.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang They took us to this spot over and over again, maybe they were really proud of the mural.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang Social realism in sculpture.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang The place is called Mansu Hill Grand Monument, and you are informed that “visitors who take photos of the statues are required to frame both leaders in the entirety of their picture.”
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang Before entering North Korea we were told by our Chinese guide (who did not enter North Korea with us) what would happen if you decided to ignore the limitations and take a stroll outside of the allowed area. Provided they don’t stop you immediately, you’d be arrested, threatened, and then forced to pay in order to be released (the person who actually did do it had to pay $10,000 USD). If you are American, all bets are off though.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang Pyongyang Times is a weekly magazine that was launched in 1965, and is published in English and French. The front page is usually dedicated to the ruling Kim visiting various places and handing precious advice. The magazine claimed that “if the Olympic Games were to be held in South Korea, many sportsmen and tourists of the world would meet death, infected with AIDS”, as so many people had been deliberately infected by American soldiers.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang Workers carrying an object across the bridge.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang In North Korea, there are places you can visit and places you cannot visit, and the latter are far more numerous. Well, this is one of them. Usually, we were accompanied by our guides, one in the front, one in the back. But at one point they were both in the front, which allowed for a literally 15-second long detour into this ordinary shop for North Koreans. That gave me maybe 10 seconds to take this and the following picture, before being kicked out by the bad cop, and the atmosphere became rather unpleasant. I’m not sure if he saw me taking these pictures.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang You have to be fast. Soon we noticed that while Pyongyang is meant to be a utopian showcase for foreign visitors like ourselves, there are more glamorous bits, and there are less glamurous bits. What’s more, our mute driver was perfectly aware of this, so he would conveniently slow down whenever the surroundings were impressive, and speed up whenever they were less pleasant, to make them more difficult to photograph. One of us said that taking photos in North Korea was therefore like Olympic archery.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang The waitresses serving us often seemed a little terrified. This was our first night in North Korea. We dined in the hotel’s basement, in a small room, debating whether it was bugged, and wondering whether we could trust one another (the whole group was 7 people).
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang All the modest elegance and cleanness of Pyongyang… and now this!
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang But then it doesn’t seem like they volounteer to keep the place clean. Since South Korea is no longer providing fertiliser, North Koreans are charged with collecting their faeces in winter for spring planting. This is used to produce toibee, a fertiliser in which ash is mixed with human excrement. Factories and public enterprised have been ordered to produce two tons of toibee.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang Soldiers in Pyongyang.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang This was how most photos would be taken – through the minivan window. Pro tip: Take your polarising filter with you to minimise reflections. Pro tip from John Z Wetmore : It helps to wear a dark or black shirt, so the reflection is of black and doesn’t show up. (Thanks, John!)
Michal Huniewicz – Road to North Korea North Koreans supposedly believe that the entire world is in awe of their achievements.
Michal Huniewicz – Road to North Korea Patiently waiting for the train to pass.
Michal Huniewicz – Road to North Korea Across the country.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang What’s the last time you saw a kid in the West cleaning anything? Also, the statue on the left features a North Korean soldier stepping on an American flag.
Michal Huniewicz – Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang The rumour is, the fifth floor of the hotel is entire dedicated to the surveillance of the guests. Some people managed to visit it (the door is usually closed when you take the stairs), so it’s worth googling.
Michal Huniewicz – Road to North Korea There is some sparse, 50s-looking infrastructure on the North Korean side of the river.
All images: Michal Huniewicz/m1key.me unless otherwise noted.