An American traveler has posted a remarkable set of pictures on his Instagram account, providing a glimpse into a bizarre yet beautiful state trapped in a 20th century dystopia.
Taylor Pemberton spent four days in the North Korean dictatorship on a tourist visa, documenting his trip via the picture-sharing site. According to the 26-year-old from Minnesota, he was free to take photos, but was occasionally instructed not to.
"Nobody went through my camera and scanned my photos," he told HuffPost. However they did check his phone, cameras, and memory cards upon entry.
On his trip, Pemberton said he had two tour guides to help him the entire time. "They were our liaisons," he said. "The guard you see in the portrait was the liaison at the DMZ."
“Visiting North Korea was really an amazing experience," reflected Pemberton. "It’s both mentally and emotionally challenging. It’s confusing but also enlightening. I had done a lot of research on the country and watched many documentaries on the subject."
He added: "I really went into it trying to keep an open mind, and was hoping that I could capture some of what was going on there. I’m not very political, yet wanted to learn more about the situation while also pursuing the art of photography and documentary. I think you gain a lot from just being there.”
In contrast to the grey, grainy images that usually seep out of North Korea, Pemberton's stunning documentation provides a fresh and very colourful insight into life in a state held captive by the 1950s.
Typical scenes in North Korea happen just like everywhere else in the world. People tease each other, they trip up the stairs, they try to fix their hair in the reflection. I'm inspired by all this because it brings a sense of relation to a society that is alienated for obvious reasons. We were crossing underneath the main road when I saw this. I chose to take this photo (and now post) because it makes me know those things are real, even if it's just for a moment. #contrateur
Pyongyang train station. I arrived at the airport and was instantly escorted to meet up with my group that had arrived from Dandong, China. Since I'm American, I had to fly into North Korea, a reason I'm still not 100% sure of. This building is pretty spectacular, inside and out, and is the central railway hub for connecting Pyongyang other towns that lie on the outskirts. #contrateur
One of the first rules you're told is that you should not, under any circumstance, photograph military personnel. When I took this photo I was moving in a fast bus and didn't even see the mass of soldiers at ease. Truthfully, you can push these limits if you dare, but the consequences could be disastrous. I did see a few other travelers with robust telephoto lenses which makes me wonder what they captured. I tried to be as respectful as possible through my journey and hope that some of the riskier bits will shine light on some important aspects of North Korean life. #contrateur
Hospitality is taken very seriously in North Korea. The Yanggakdo hotel is perfectly staffed with a wide array of workers to always suit your needs. Food is plentiful, rooms are tidy, the entire presentation feels very grandeur. Since you can't leave the hotel, you have several amenities that exist throughout the building: various shops, a casino, several restaurants, a bowling alley, a billiards room, a karaoke room, ping pong, and more. This shot was taken at the rooftop restaurant, which is a 360 degree panorama room that slowly rotates during open hours. This was a popular hangout spot where we'd drink beer and enjoy each others company, particularly favorable since everything felt so eccentric and retro. #contrateur
North Korea has no internet, no television, no free information. This is the only public news I saw in Pyongyang, where each headline and each image is a tribute to the DPRK and great leader. It's difficult to wrap your head around the sheer magnitude this imposes for an ecosystem and it's people. Want to openly make art? Want to free listen to music, or watch films? Want to create or learn anything outside the constructs of formal structure? Sorry, not possible. Even something as trivial as Instagram has had a huge impact on my ability to grow creatively. I'm able to practice the art of photography and documentary. I can be inspired by people I've never met. I feel the competition, the pressure to keep growing and exploring. I don't know where I'd be without the accessibility of free information. I grew up on the Internet. I've formed my own conclusions. And for that, I feel very grateful. #contrateur
While I was in North Korea, a new time zone was established. From what we were told, this was an effort to further identify as an independent nation, one that no longer shares time with South Korea. The DPRK time zone is now 30 minutes prior to what was established when Japan controlled the Korean Peninsula thru WWII. #contrateur
One of the first things you do in North Korea is go pay respect to the great Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. These bronze statues are 22 meters high and part of a monument complex that was constructed in downtown Pyongyang. You could argue that the two figures depicted here are North Korea’s equivalent of Jesus, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Gandhi combined (which still may not even communicate the importance these two hold in North Korean lives). Paying respect here is pretty simple: patrons purchase flowers, lay them at the base of the monument, make a bow, and go on their way. It's mandatory to do so. #contrateur
Making a portrait of a local is basically impossible due to a tricky separation between tourists and general public. The only reason I was able to capture the man in the last post is because he was distracted by this, a mini-version of mass dance - a celebration that takes place on Liberation Day, a highlight of the trip. (I'll be sharing more about this soon) #contrateur
On the flight over to North Korea, you're able to already sense the extreme devotion and dedication to the late Kim Il-Sung. Even though Il-Sung hasn't been alive since the 90s, the DPRK inhabitants consider him their president and outright great leader. When traveling through various cities, his presence and lineage is on constant display, with many residents proudly displaying pins on their clothing and with various monuments at popular transit points. It's difficult to find a representation of Il-Sung or his family that hasn't been artificially fabricated, and most of the history we discussed contained precomposed images to support various historical references. It was clear that no matter what, you pay respect to the great leader and to his rich family history that exists in North Korea today. #contrateur
Before I go any further, I feel it’s important to preface the content I’m about to share. With a country/topic like North Korea, I’d like to be as honest with my observations as possible. Many people have asked me how you gain access to a country that is so restricted. It’s pretty easy, even as an American. What you’ll need is simply time and money. This image is the visa that I was granted about a week before my flight. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang, while non-Americans were able to cross the border from Dandong by rail. I got this visa because I applied via the various tourism companies that service North Korea. My trip was 4 days, and we had two guides: one male, one female. It’s also important to note that you are NOT able to roam free at any given time. You follow a strict itinerary and you are on a tight schedule to see what North Korea allows. You stay in a hotel that is isolated on an island, and you are strictly informed when it is okay/not okay to take photos. However! with thousands of visitors each year, the fabric loosens, and that’s where things start to get interesting. You're able to witness the the imperfections, the infinite nuances... the hiccups that reveal why some foreigners have become so obsessed and return year after year to live with what exists behind the curtain. I’ll admit, it was a tough decision to fork over the money to travel to North Korea. There are serious things to consider, not all of which I’m comfortable supporting. I've been debating this trip for over 9 months, and it wasn’t until 4 weeks ago that I finally pulled the trigger. The flight in from Beijing was short, and when we touched down in Pyongyang, I was nervous. In fact, I don’t think I was ever fully at ease. I’m not by any means the first to visit North Korea. There were other foreigners all visiting Pyongyang when I was there. I was lucky to get paired with an insightful and intelligent group of 6 other travelers, ranging from 25 to 71 years old. My family was worried, so were my friends, but I went because the DPRK is so complicated. It was ultimately a tough decision, but one that was so so worth it. #contrateur