In recent years, journalists have increasingly been able to offer the world a peek inside North Korea. However, the nation remains a mysterious place, where propaganda and reality coexist. This intertwined dichotomy fascinated Dutch photographer Alice Wielinga, who produced a series of photomontages that mesh the reality of what she personally saw when visiting North Korea with the utopian vision of its leaders.

Wielinga started her career as a photojournalist in 2004 after graduating from the Academy of Arts in St. Joost in the Netherlands. But, after four years spent in the editorial market, she became increasingly disillusioned by it. “Every time I sent a picture to the desks, they were happy but I wasn’t,” she says. “I felt that, with mere documenting, I wasn’t able to tell the story as I felt it, as I was experiencing it.”

That’s when she turned to photomontage. “That way, I could use my documentary pictures and combine them with other works to go further,” she says.

That ability to tell a story the way she experienced it proved handy after the photographer got a chance to visit North Korea through an organized tour in 2013.

“I want to recreate images that look like theirs but that tell my own story,” the 33-year-old says. “When I arrived in North Korea, I noticed that what I interpreted as the reality of North Korea was also a version of propaganda. Through the documentaries I’ve seen, the books I’ve bought, I had this image of North Korea as a country that stood still for 50 years, which is true, but that’s a version that they try to show you on these propaganda tours.”

She cites the example of an English class she was allowed to attend. “When I saw it, I realized that I had seen this exact English class in a documentary,” she says. “That’s when you realize that this is not the everyday reality of North Korea. It’s a very polished version of everyday reality.”

Photomontage allows Wielinga to combine the polished version with what lies underneath. Her composite images take between one and three weeks to produce, and are often made up of dozens of images meshed together with one, two or three paintings or propaganda pictures. “First I collect the materials, and then I collect hundreds of paintings from books, but also from photographs I took in art galleries in North Korea,” she says. “Then, I scatter the prints on the floor of my studio and I start looking for things that are linked to each other or confront one another.”

While Wielinga tried to imagine what North Koreans actually feel like, she admits that her images are interpretations of what she felt while visiting the secluded country. “I think there’s a part of North Korea that truly hopes it’s building that utopia, but they also realize that they are actually far from it.”

Alice Wielinga is a Dutch photographer. Her ongoing project North Korea, a Life between Propaganda and Reality, will form part of the North Korean Perspectives show at the MoCP in Chicago from July 23 to Oct. 4, 2015.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent.

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