Same People, Different Nations

-18 degrees Celcius says the weather app on my phone. -24 if you factor in the wind chill. It’s that cold right now. The entire Eastern part of the US is under a weather advisory as arctic winds sweep in.But the coffee here at the usual spot is warm and, aside from another client, is my only companion. House music off a Pandora radio station gives the rhythm today. House music, which I’m sure isn’t very popular in North Korea but is in South Korea.

Following the end of WWII, in 1945, Japan’s 35 year rule of Korea ended and much like with Berlin, two external forces occupied two separate parts of the country. The Soviet Union north of the 38th parallel and the US in the South. In the most simplistic terms, it was just like that. The two Koreas that we now know of took off and the rest is history. All divided by the DMZ, a place that I wish to see even though I traveled to South Korea in 1999.

Tourists at the DMZ, David Guttenfelder.

Can you imagine? The same people, now divided by powers above them. And no, not God, or any other spiritual power, but by other nations. Literally, people sat at a table and decided to take actions that would decide the fate of millions of others.

But it’s through the images, the photographs and photographers that we can understand the extent of the division. Discovery through photography? Of course.

David Guttenfelder is an acclaimed photojournalist that has traveled to North Korea extensively. He even helped open the Associated Press Bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. And in 2013, only five years ago, when North Korea made 3G connections available, Guttenfelder was able to quickly post a photo on Instagram. Taken with his iPhone, it was so groundbreaking that it landed in the 100 Most Influential Photographs, by Times magazine.

guttenfelder north korea 2013 first picture
Time website: “[Guttenfelder] bringing the outside world its clearest picture yet of North Korea.”
Now although we would agree that it is not a breathtaking shot in terms of composition, lighting, shapes, form, texture or any other feature, we can agree that bring first is all that counts here.

I am curious to understand what the lady is describing. In the meantime, in South Korea, the likes of Samsung, LG and other electronics manufacturing companies were building 80-inch screens and remote controls that had laser pointers in them.

All because some people, on the other side of the world decided that that was how the country, with the same people, had to be divided. It amazes me.

Stalin appointed Kim Il Sung, one of the longest non-monarchical rulers to stay in power for almost half a decade. And his image can be seen next to his late son, Kim Jong-Il, the leader of North Korea after Sung’s death, in Guttenfelder’s photograph.

The only illumination is of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, North Korea
The only illumination is of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, North Korea

This photo is extraordinary. It is visual story telling in its purest form. It shows a desolate environment, no cars on the streets, no lights in the windows, no street lights. Just no life. With the exception of the illumination for the late leaders of North Korea.

In addition, the swerving road lets the viewer literally follow the road into nowhere from the bottom right corner to behind the high rises; lost.

And not to forget the color palette, blue, green, and magenta, all complimenting each other. Much like in a more recent photo by Guttenfelder of Pyongyang.

Another view of Pyongyang

At least here it seems that a few more houses have lighting, fortunately. Or at least are allowed to use it at certain times?

Another fascinating visual storytelling image by Guttenfelder is this one, which shows how children, even when they are supposed to be wild and free, and with roller blades, are all lined up in orderly fashion

north korean children playground
“Rollerbladers” looking at the other children “playing” on a slide.

A few others that stick out from his collection of work, and National Geographic articles, are:

north korean families diving
Factory workers and their families enjoying a new diving structure
Pyongyang, North Korea

And there is the South. South Korea.

Nikos Economopoulos is one of those Magnum members whose work I go back to again and again because it is just so compelling. One day, in reading and viewing his work I came across this interesting 1 hour video, on a trip he took to South Korea.

You might recall one of his photos in another post I wrote,Street Style. The use of layers in his composition is extraordinary and can be seen in his images of Korea as well.

In the video he embarks in a train journey and aside from his appreciation of the train as a great way to travel, which I agree with, as photographers, we can learn a few things.

The first is that he observes. He was fascinated by how South Koreans were drawn to photographing everything. He mentions how “everyone is a photographer” (just not a Magnum photographer, I would add).

He observed this peculiarity, this habit, this cultural behavior and photographed it.

People phoographing, V-Train South Korea, by Nikos Economopoulos
People phoographing, V-Train South Korea, by Nikos Economopoulos

Or this one.

c People phoographing, V-Train South Korea, by Nikos Economopoulos
People photographing, South Korea

The second is that he is just so calm about it. Hand on the side, casually seeing and capturing a scene. Not messing around with levers, buttons, dials, focal lengths. He came, he saw, he captured.

Just look at how he stands in between the V-Train sign. The train that leaves Buncheon, arrives in Cheoram, and passes through the valleys of Baekdudaegen.

nikos economopoulos making photos
Nikos Economopoulos casually making Magnum quality photographs

And lastly, not all street or documentary photography has to be candid. And yes, sometimes photos can be deceiving. In the scene below three young women are enjoying lunch. They are laughing, and most likely taking a break from work.

South Korean women enjoying lunch

Nikos directs them to be “normal, normal, normal”, while awkwardly pointing his finger upwards; as if that is to represent “normal”.

N. Economopoulos asking his subjects to act “normal, normal, normal”

And then magically, because he is Nikos Economopoulos, comes out with this.

women lunch v-train south korea
South Korean women having lunch break during work, along the V-Train line

Now, had I put this image in the North Korean ones by Guttenfelder, I’m pretty sure no one would have questioned it.

Why? Because it’s the same people in nations that were arbitrarily separated some 60 years ago at the 38th parallel. I wonder if the Berlin Wall had never come down if we would be calling East and West Berliners different people or just Germans from different cities?

Fortunately, through great photography we can learn and discover. And thanks to David Guttenfelder and Nikos Economopoulos we have slivers of insight on the two separate countries, as well as learn on their masterful skill.

Until Next Time,

Another Gem