Sam Gellman visits North Korea


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Sam Gellman
09 Sunday 09th October 2011

Last month, Sam Gellman took a trip to North Korea. Over four days he captured these fantastic images of the secretive and media-averse country. As is protocol for foreign visitors, he was accompanied by guides the whole time, carefully vetted what he was permitted to see. Even within these narrow parameters however, he framed his shots to pull back the veil of propaganda and see a little of the totalitarian dictatorship, cut off from the world for over sixty years.

First off, how did you first hear about Koryo Tours, then decide to use them to tour North Korea?

I've lived in Hong Kong for five years, and among expats living in Hong Kong it's actually a relatively common destination for travel. It's definitely off the beaten path, but many of my friends had been.  As someone with a serious interest in travel photography, it was important to me that I make it there.

North Korean kids hold up papers which create an image of the North Korean flag. There are 30,000 of them, switching the cards every second in some cases, and others holding an image for 30 seconds to a minute. Taken at the Mass Games on September 9, in Pyongyang, North Korea.

On such a short trip, how did you sort out your priorities of what to see?

We basically let Koryo Tours make the decisions for us.  To be honest, I didn't know a ton about North Korea before going so trusted the company's judgment.

Obviously with its reputation as a reclusive nation on the world stage, North Korea seems like an impossible place to penetrate as a foreigner. How did most people react to you and the rest of the tour group?

It was just me and a friend in my group, and I generally thought people were pretty friendly. Not outgoing but certainly willing to smile and shake hands if they knew we were as well.  

I really enjoy travel photography, and I actually found that in North Korea people were not just glad to have their picture taken but even a bit honored. They also seemed surprised that I wanted to speak with them in the first place but were more than happy to have a quick chat or a smile.

The subway in Pyongyang is 100 meters below the ground. Meant to be a bomb shelter as well. There are two stations where they encourage tourists to take pictures, which made the rest of us wonder about the other stations. That said, we did see one more which seemed perfectly nice as well.

How do you feel Koryo handled guiding a tour group in such a notoriously closed nation? You mention they were "also quite conscious of every step we took" on your Flickr: can you elaborate on that a little?

Koryo is really just the agent that sets up the trip.  It is the North Korea state-owned travel company that takes over the tour once you arrive, so it was KITC, not Koryo that actually gave the tour when we arrived.

The North Koreans we met had a lot of pride, and I think it's important to them that we photograph the better parts of their country.  
I just got the impression that they were very weary of journalists and photographers who would go as tourists and return with negative press about the country.

The guards at the airport are also known for looking through cameras to make sure the images portray the country well, though that actually didn't happen to me: the camera wasn't searched at all.

I found the outfits they were wearing more interesting than the Tai Kwan Do we were watching.

Which individuals you met or came across still stand out in your mind most?

The relationship is closest with the guides.  They spend just about every minute that you're awake with you. They also are the ones that speak English, so without question they are the ones we get to know the best on the tour.

After spending a few hours telling us about American Imperialists at the De-militarization Zone (DMZ: the 4-mile neutral area between North and South Korea), this soldier was more than happy to have his picture taken, shake hands, and have a quick hello. Every North Korean citizen above the age of 17 wears that pin he has, with the image of their Eternal President Kim Il Sung.

And what do you think other people expect your photos and experience to teach them about North Korea? How much do you feel like a spokesman for the country, to the western world, now?

My photos spread around the internet pretty quickly.  My North Korea set got 200,000 hits in two days.  My set with the most hits before then was something like 2,000 hits in three years.  

I don't feel like much of a spokesman, as I really just did a quick four day tour there, was really bewildered and surprised by the place and left with far more questions than I went in with. That said, I do like that my photos do spread a message of human similarities, even in places as different as North Korea.  That was one of the main messages I was going for with the images.  

At the end of the day, the average person in North Korea probably has similar worries and joys to the average person anywhere else. I did try to show that through my photography, as I do in all my destinations, I just think it's a bit more striking to people when they see it in North Korea.

You can see the rest of Sam's North Korea series on Flickr, and the rest of his photography at

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