Since the 1948 creation of separate governments for North and South Korea after World War II, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North has remained behind an iron curtain, an isolated and secluded state. Our image of the country has been pieced together from pictures taken across the border at the DMZ, photographs provided by government news agencies or unauthorized surreptitious photographs taken by western photographers inside the country—until now.
In January, the Associated Press opened a bureau in Pyongyang for full news coverage within North Korea. AP’s Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder—who first traveled to North Korea as a pool photographer in January 2000 to cover the visit of Madeline Albright—has made a dozen trips to the country over the past 18 months as part of the negotiating team and on reporting trips with Jean H. Lee, AP bureau chief for the Koreas, taking photos each time. Guttenfelder’s approach to showing North Korea to the world has been shaped by his long and prestigious career with the AP.
Guttenfelder has just received two honors from the Overseas Press Club, which announced their annual awards this morning. The Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad, in magazines or books, and the Feature Photography Award for best feature photography, published in any medium on an international theme, recognize his recent work from last year’s Tsunami aftermath in Japan and his work inside North Korea.
In 1994, Guttenfelder traveled to the former Zaire to cover the Rwandan refugee crisis as a freelance photographer. “I thought if I ever wanted to do something more serious, this was it,” he says. Guttenfelder stayed in Africa for five years, stringing for the AP, among other outlets, and eventually became an AP staff photographer. He hasn’t lived in the States since. In the ensuing years, he has worked all over the world, from Kosovo to Israel and Iraq to Afghanistan. In 1999 he became AP’s Chief Asia photographer and moved to Japan.
Guttenfelder says when he first worked in Asia he wondered if he had made the right decision. “In the beginning it was really hard, I’d only ever covered conflict and had not done anything else,” he says. One of his first assignments was covering family reunions between North and South Koreans in Seoul. “I wasn’t used to taking photographs in an organized event surrounded by other photographers in such a modern context,” he says. “Now I look back and it was really important work. I only really spoke one language at that point—fighting, refugees and hard news—so it was an important transition for me.”
Fittingly then, when Guttenfelder was in Iraq during the U.S. invasion, he focused on trying to cover the Iraqi side of the war rather than embedding with U.S. troops. “I always thought of myself as the guy on the other side of things,” he says. Then, a year later, when Baghdad fell, Guttenfelder found himself confined to the Palestine Hotel and his role and means of covering the conflict changed again.
“We needed local photographers to cover the streets, someone who could bring back regular pictures of normal people’s lives,” he says. He solicited photographers, but found that they needed extensive training. Although the people Guttenfelder worked with barely knew the fundamentals of photography and worked with primitive equipment—including a camera that used floppy disks—they produced important work. Several of the regional photographers that Guttenfelder and his AP colleagues trained, Khalid Mohammed, Samir Mizban and Karim Kadim, became Pulitzer-Prize winning photographers when AP received the award for breaking news photography in 2005.
Iraq was not the only place Guttenfelder worked training and developing regional photographers; he also did so in Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine. His work in Afghanistan, which he considers the most important of his career, included the recruitment of Farzana Wahidy, the first Afghan woman to work as a news photographer after the fall of the Taliban. Between 2001 to 2010 Guttenfelder made at least 20 trips to Afghanistan, staying for as long as six months to a year at a time. Early on he covered the first election, and projects on the Afghan civilian side of things. But from 2007-2010 Guttenfelder focused on embeds and did multiple military trips including a stint in the Korengal Valley and was part of all of the major U.S. Marine operations into Helmand.
Guttenfelder eventually moved back to Japan in 2006, and he still lives there today. His first news photography in Japan came in March 2011, in the aftermath of the tsunami. Although his work there is highly regarded, he says he feels that his photographs could not capture the magnitude of what he saw.
Still, his experience with being dropped into a new place and quickly capturing the sense of its culture proved invaluable. “There is a known language to disaster pictures; you see the same things, people reaching through chaos, people reaching for food, a lot of emotion. Photographers were trying to find those pictures that existed in other places. It’s just not like that here. That’s just not how it is in Japan,” he says, noting that the emotionally moving picture embedded here, of a woman, on her knees, caressing and singing to her mother’s body, would seem subtle in another place but is a very “loud” picture for Japan.
Although he continues to be based in Japan, Guttenfelder has spent much of the past year in North Korea in preparation for the new AP bureau, which opened in January. Guttenfelder has been part of the negotiating team at meetings that have taken place in Pyongyang and New York over the last eighteen months. “At the first meeting, we left with an agreement that we would hold a photo exhibition and workshop and work towards an AP office in the country,” he says. The joint exhibition, Window on North Korea, on view earlier this month at the 8th Floor Gallery in New York, featured images from both AP and the KCNA archives and a workshop held in North Korea offered an opportunity for KCNA photographers get technical training, for the AP to recruit staff and for the two parties get to know one another.
“We are starting from zero in a system that is so different from anything we’ve done before,” he says. The photo exhibition and workshop were an overture to build trust and collaborate on something, and Guttenfelder has already begun working with a regional photographer, Kim Kwang Hyon. But the most interesting result of the collaboration is the opportunity it has afforded for Guttenfelder to photograph inside North Korea.
Although he is accompanied by a guide wherever he goes and has to request in advance where he wants to go, the daily life photographs that he has taken—often one-off shots made on the way to or from an event—provide a stark contrast to the highly orchestrated government news-agency photos that are more commonly seen out of North Korea.
Despite the normalcy portrayed in these photographs, Guttenfelder says they are actually the most important images because they paint a picture of a place that has been hitherto a mystery. And that can open the window for understanding in both directions. “At the beginning I would take a picture in the street of people standing waiting for the bus. I could tell they didn’t really understand and thought it looked bad, looked poor,” he says. “I would spend a lot of time explaining that people wait for the bus and commute to work everywhere in the world and that someone beyond North Korea could make a connection—that picture breaks down barriers.”
Recently, a select group of photojournalists from western agencies have been allowed into North Korea to cover the celebrations of the birth of the country’s Eternal President Kim II-sung and a missile launch. How long they will be able to stay is in question, but Guttenfelder and AP are committed for the long term. “It’s a really good time to have an office here and to see how things evolve,” he says. “I feel a huge responsibility because this is the first time the country has allowed this much access to one of us.”