'Life in North Korea' Photographer On the Human Face of the DPRK

By Ned Kelly, November 5, 2021

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German Christian Petersen-Clausen is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in Shanghai. In his filmmaking and photography, Christian explores the humanity that unites all of us.

From fleeting moments to the shared obsessions, hopes and loves — it’s the small details that allow us to recognize what we have in common across cultures, ages and beliefs. “I believe that by getting to know each other better, we can improve the world we share,” he says.

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In his latest exhibition, ‘Life in North Korea,’ he invites people to imagine what their lives might be like had they been born in the DPRK, and twice a week he hosts a guided tour of his work. We caught up with him to find out more.

When and why did you first visit the DPRK?
I first went to the DPRK back in 2014 because, as a German who grew up with the Berlin Wall dividing my own country, I was curious about similarities and differences on the Korean Peninsula.

I have visited the country around 10 times in total, although I’m a bit hazy on the precise number because quite a few times I went on short notice.

What is it that fascinates you about the country?
Visiting North Korea reinforces how much what is considered 'normal' can change from country to country. Here, it is normal to bow in front of statues and pictures of leaders. It is normal to need a permission slip from your boss to travel between cities.

Similarly, we have accepted things in our own home countries as normal that aren’t that anywhere but where we are from. I am fascinated by these local peculiarities and their ramifications.

The regular people of North Korea have been sealed off from Western influences for a long time.

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How do you go about humanizing your subjects?
It is very important to me to provide a context for each picture and let the viewer imagine being themselves in the situation I show. Where we are born is a matter of luck, so what would your life be like had you opened your eyes first in this unique place? What would your after school activities be like? How about your ride home or your work prospects?

What do you look for in a photograph?
I look for the humanity that unites us all peering through. Most of us aim to care for our elders and love our children; we have hopes for our lives yet duties we have to fulfill. While we may speak different languages and look different on the surface, we are, at the end of the day, more similar than many ideologies might want to have us believe. Photographs that explore this theme are my most cherished ones.

Where are your go-to places in the DPRK to shoot?
I like photographing people when they are just going about their day or relaxing. For that reason, I like parks and scenic spots a lot. On summer weekends people go there to BBQ with their families; they drink, dance and generally are less worried when a strange foreigner tries to take a photo. 

Do you have a favorite photo in the series?
I have a visually favorite photo, and I have a favorite person in this exhibition. They are not the same.

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The photo of a man in uniform looking at the camera shows a university student. He is in his thirties, which often surprises viewers, but in North Korea, many men join the army for up to 10 years, so it is completely normal to see male college students who are 10 years older than their female counterparts.

What is special about him is the yellow armband. Every student in college has to volunteer to fulfill certain tasks. You might have to cook or clean, for example. But this gentleman has chosen to be a moral guard. He admonishes and fines his fellow students. For example, for wearing skirts that don’t cover the knee or haircuts that are not approved.

He might think of this as a patriotic duty, and he might think of himself as a good person. But we all know these kinds of people from our own experiences, and I’d volunteer that at least some of us, as well as some of the students he admonishes, might have a different opinion.

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My favorite person is a well-fed man with a leather manbag waiting for a taxi. This is a donju ('moneyed people'), a private entrepreneur. I am deeply intrigued by them.

How much do you have to want a slightly better life that you pursue capitalist activities in the one country that is generally thought of as most hostile to the idea? What obstacles must he have to overcome?

We all know that starting your own small business is tough and filled with unexpected challenges that make for intriguing stories. I imagine his life to be a heightened example of this.

What can people expect from the exhibit tour with you?
During the tour, I will provide context beyond what the already detailed captions can provide. Usually, two images are intended to compliment or contrast each other, and I go into the social context in detail.

Tour guides and authorities in North Korea would be delighted if all I photographed were statues and monuments, so many of the photographs shown have stories of the challenges I had to face to take and keep the shot.

If you could shoot one place you have not yet, where would it be?
Only a very small number of Westerners have been able to take the slow, rickety train from Pyongyang to Vladivostok, Russia. I would very much like to join this trip as it means traveling for multiple days in a carriage with regular North Koreans, often without a tour guide coming along.

The very few snapshots I have seen from these rides suggest this to be an extremely interesting opportunity to see a people and a country far beyond the regular tourist spots.

Any other unusual destinations you have made the subject of a photography series?
I will have to get back to you on this one when my next series is finished.


Every Thursday at 7pm and Sunday at 3pm Christian Petersen-Clausen hosts a private exhibition tour of ‘Life in North Korea,’ followed by a Q&A session. Tickets are just RMB98, scan the QR or click here to get yours now:

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Every Thursday at 7pm and Sunday at 3pm, until Nov 20; RMB98. Tsubo, 890 Hengshan Lu, Shanghai. 上海市徐汇区衡山路890弄衡山坊7幢.

[All images courtesy of Christian Petersen-Clausen]

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