Koryo's Vicky Mohieddeen on Photographing North Korea

By Andrew Chin, June 16, 2016

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Despite recent endorsements for Trump and exhibition basketball games spearheaded by Dennis Rodman, North Korea generally lives up to its reputation as the Hermit Kingdom. However, for over 20 years Koryo Tours has done its best to demystify it through tours (like the Pyongyang Marathon) and cultural exchanges. On June 19, Koryo's Vicky Mohieddeen will screen short films and provide a talk about capturing the country at The Apartment. Prior to Everything is Fake: Photographing North Korea, she chats with us about changes in the country and dealing with online criticism.

By Vicky Mohieddeen

When was the first time you went to North Korea and do you remember what sort of preconceived notions you had going there?
My first trip to North Korea was in 2008 and I had impossibly few preconceptions. I knew almost nothing about the country and was going to accompany my sister. Needless to say the trip was the most extraordinary experience, realising that a country and society like this still existed in the world but at the same time being welcomed by such warm and friendly hosts. I remember coming back and saying to the founder of Koryo Tours, it's so cinematic, I'd love to shoot there and him saying, everyone wants to make films in North Korea. But it's not that simple...

As a photographer, how has North Korea changed? 
I don't identify as a photographer. Generally speaking I'm a producer and filmmaker but photography is a big part of how I experience the country. I especially enjoy sharing my photographs with the online community on Instagram, and with Koreans in the country. 

Being a frequent traveller to North Korea I think you're forced to evaluate how you are consuming and potentially exploiting vulnerable people for the sake of likes on social media. The details in Pyongyang have changed in eight years: fashion and technology used, the architecture and skyline has adapted. But it's worth noting how little fundamental has changed. 

By Vicky Mohieddeen

What are some of your favorite things to shoot there?
Mass dances are my favourite place to shoot for the simple reason that the light is always the best, it's either a couple of hours before sunset, when you experience the sun low in the sky or at night with floodlights - when you're shooting on a phone, good lighting is key!

Has it become easier to arrange these trips?
The process for arranging trips hasn't actually changed, the only factor affecting growing tourist numbers is that more people are becoming aware that you can travel to North Korea. 

What are some of the best places to visit for people who have never been?

Pyongyang, with its mega monuments is a must-see, but if people have the time and the means I highly recommend our longer tours (such as our upcoming Liberation Day Long Tour), being able to experience the North Korean countryside and the comparison of the smaller towns and cities with Pyongyang gives you deeper look at this highly complex country.

Everything is Fake

Part of the flyer for this talk shows some of the vulgar reaction you receive from your photographic work of North Korea. What is the most common criticism and have you had any dialogue with any of these critics? 
The most common criticism is that what you are photographing is fake, and that somehow I have been duped into thinking that what I am seeing is all that exists in North Korea. People often enjoy accusing you or propping up the North Korean regime or producing propaganda on their behalf. In my presentation I talk about how you can maintain the integrity of your vision while navigating social media. 

How discouraging is it that there is such a sexist tenor to online attacks?
As a woman this is particularly difficult, but it seems to be a fact of the internet that the worst things people will think will be said. I'm not discouraged by it, when I'm not researching a presentation I don't spend too much time reading nasty things people have said about me. Time away from screens, with a supportive loving real life network is the antidote!

By Vicky Mohieddeen

What has been the impact of Koryo's cultural work in North Korea and are there any artists within North Korea whose work should be more widely known?

More than artists that we work with, for me the most encouraging thing is seeing our counterparts in North Korea enthusiastically get involved in arranging events, and being able to continue working in the creative field through the projects that we instigate in the country, such as our Art Photography exhibition in 2015.

Following your Shanghai talk, what are your plans?

We're currently working with Dutch photographer Eddo Hartmann on a new photography project, and I am currently collating the entries to the Pyongyang International Film Festival.

June 19, 7pm, RMBTBA. The Apartment.

All photos by Vicky Mohieddeen

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