'Welcome to Pyongyang'

courtesy Chris Boot

A new photography book opens a window on people and places in North Korea, the least visited country in the world.

Admit it: You're curious to see what exactly North Korea's capital looks like. (After all, it's part of the "axis of evil"!) Now you can, thanks to Charlie Crane's new book of 65 large-format photographs. We're showcasing 10 of his photos in a riveting slide show. Plus, read the following excerpt from tour operator Nicholas Bonner's introduction.

From Welcome to Pyongyang:

In 1993 Koryo Tours was established to run trips to the DPRK. We have made three documentaries and several radio programmes, but producing a photographic record that respected the unique conditions of the country was a particular challenge. Photography in the DPRK is a strange beast. Koreans are anxious to show off the best of themselves and their country at all times. This can lead to farce as people overcome their nerves and compete to have their picture taken, or refuse permission based on seemingly innocuous details such as having a missing button. Pyongyang citizens use cameras as a way of recording themselves at particular points in time and often at a place of significance -- for example, a wedding group at the Workers Party Monument where Government photographers will take the picture for a small fee. For photographs taken at locations such as the zoo or even on Kim Il Sung Square, they use kitsch props such as stuffed horses, flower arches and teddy bears.

If a family is fortunate enough to have a camera it will be used for formal portraits. Frames are not wasted on informal snaps. There is no camera culture and film development costs are expensive, although the number of digital cameras in circulation is growing and may lead to a more informal approach.

Family albums record major events such as birthday celebrations, university graduations and grandparents in front of tables laden with gifts on their wedding anniversary. For a group scene, the photographer asks his subjects to say 'kimchi' -- the national dish of pickled cabbage -- which reliably brings smiles to their faces. Photography for public exhibition is used to pay respects to the Leaders and to demonstrate the allegiance and support of the public and army in the various construction projects around the country. There are no photography exhibitions at the National Art Gallery for aesthetic purposes only. Photography is not regarded as an art form in its own right.

Tourists often find that the restrictions on photography are not as intense as they initially thought. Memorably, in 2002 one of our tourists came across a platoon of soldiers marching down a broad avenue. Fearing a telling off, he kept his camera in his bag and backed away from what appeared to be the entire Korean People's Army. From a safe distance he braved a little wave, and without breaking step the entire platoon waved back for a picture. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to get beyond the vision of the place that has been so meticulously crafted.

What we present in this book is Pyongyang on its own terms. Charlie Crane and I have accepted, even embraced, the limitations placed upon photography. We hope the result is as interesting and revealing as any undercover photo-essay. I make no apologies for presenting it this way. Visiting Pyongyang is a unique and rewarding experience, and I urge anyone who has the opportunity to see it for themselves.

Beijing, December 2006

Reprinted from Welcome to Pyongyang by Charlie Crane, published by Chris Boot in May 2007, $35. Click to purchase on Amazon.com.

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