Pyongyang offers a rare ‘real’ photo opportunity

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Most images of North Korea appearing in the media express just a few aspects of that country — namely, repression, militarism, poverty, backwardness, gloom.

Often, the form of photographs of that communist dictatorship conveys those ideas, too — whether by being blurry, taken from a low angle or through a long lens; the implicit message being that the image itself is contraband, a stolen glimpse into a closed world.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

This month, photographer Ari Hatsuzawa publishes a book of photos he snapped during four trips to North Korea over the last three years. The most surprising thing about them is how bright and colorful they are, and how normal, and even happy, many of his subjects appear.

Off-duty soldiers stand grinning at an unseen amusement park ride. A bride and groom teeter atop a waterfall as they ready for a wedding portrait. Lovers share a quiet moment in the surf. Flat-screen televisions line aisles at department stores. And in a public pool, a strikingly attractive woman emerges from the water, dripping.

At a recent talk in Tokyo, Hatsuzawa explained that many people’s first reaction to his photographs of the so-called Hermit Kingdom is that he must have been duped — that the North Korean propaganda machine must have planted these oddly photogenic people in his path in order to create a good impression.

Hatsuzawa, 39, laughed as he recalled such suggestions. “People overestimate the resources that North Korea can afford to bring to bear on impressing just one guy with a camera,” he said.

Like many in his profession, Hatsuzawa has an outgoing personality and an insatiable curiosity. Even as he pays the bills with studio work from his base in Tokyo, he also carries out more “creative” projects.

In 2003, he traveled to Iraq, just weeks before the U.S.-led invasion, “to photograph the people.” In 2007, he took a series of portraits of Tokyo’s more nocturnal inhabitants — clubbers, bartenders — as they were at precisely 5 a.m. Then, in 2009, he got to work on the present book, which from the outset he knew he wanted to title “Rinjin: 38-do Sen no Kita” (“Neighbors: North of the 38th Parallel”).

Hatsuzawa guessed that 2012 would see an uptick in interest in North Korea, what with an expected power transition there, and it being the 10th anniversary of then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s landmark 2002 visit to the country. (He wasn’t counting on the recent, Dec. 12 missile launch — though it will likely help spur interest in his book, which is set to hit stores on Dec. 21.)

Still, getting permission to travel to North Korea wasn’t easy. He started by visiting the Tokyo-based General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon). That body was established to represent those Koreans who came to Japan during the period from 1910-45, when their country was colonized by Japan, and who then opted to stay on when the peninsula was divided into North and South after the 1950-53 Korean War — but without taking up either South Korean or Japanese citizenship.

Chongryon’s response to his book proposal wasn’t exactly as he had hoped. The answer came back that he could join a good-will visit to North Korea to deliver books, but he could not take his camera.

“Imagine that,” he said with a laugh. “I was a photographer without a camera!”

Still, Hatsuzawa was in no rush, and he guessed that if he went on the good-will trip he would win the trust of both Chongryon and the North Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, which is responsible for arranging — and keeping watch over — visiting foreigners.

In the following year, 2010, he was granted permission to return — this time with his equipment.

Everything was planned in advance.

“We had to decide the entire itinerary. On day one, I would go to this park or that museum. Day two, another,” he explained. “Still, most evenings I’d tell my minders I wanted to wander with my camera, and they’d let me. Of course, they’d come, too.”

Hatsuzawa decided early on that he would work with his minders — as he knew he would have to make repeat visits in order to complete his book. “If you go behind their backs, then you’ll just get kicked out and won’t be allowed back,” he said.

Still, Hatsuzawa realized his minders had a fair degree of discretion in determining when they would allow him to take a photo or not — and when they would simply turn their backs and pretend not to notice what he was doing. He decided to try to make the most of that wiggle room.

There were several obvious no-nos. “You don’t try to take photos of military bases,” Hatsuzawa said. “They are also suspicious of telephoto lenses, because then they don’t know what you are actually taking.”

In an attempt to get his minders to lessen their vigilance, Hatsuzawa opted to be almost unnecessarily open with them, always chatting with them and even inviting them out for drinks in the evening and then opening his computer and showing them everything he had taken that day.

The red-blooded Hatsuzawa has a fashion photographer’s eye for beauty, and he recalled enlivening the proceedings by asking many a pretty waitress to join him and his minders for drinks. By the end of such sessions he had invariably captured some unguarded portraits of the women. And his equally red-blooded minders were also pleased to come away with some extra phone numbers in their notebooks.

Gradually, he said, the minders relaxed their watch over him — not only letting him shoot schools, shops and parks as he wished, but also letting him photograph random scenes from the street, both in Pyongyang and rural areas.

If evidence of the success of Hatsuzawa’s policy of ingratiating himself with his minders can be found, perhaps it was in the ear-bashings he reported them receiving from passersby.

“Wherever I went, people recognized me as a foreigner — a Japanese,” he said, noting that his carefully permed bouffant hairstyle gave him away. “They would call out, ‘Japanese,’ dismissively, frown, and then tell the minders to exert more control over me.”

He said demonstrations of animosity toward Japanese people were not uncommon. “With the history of colonialism and the lack of diplomatic relations at present, that is understandable, particularly in the rural areas,” he said.

But he was quick to add that he never felt threatened. “That is the thing with tightly controlled societies,” he noted. “The streets are safe. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was safe. After the U.S. invasion, it wasn’t.”

Hatsuzawa is a realist when it comes to assessing North Korean and Japanese relations, but he is not pessimistic. “Now it is not good, but if in the future the North Korean government decides to be friends with Japan, and they announce that, then the entire population will follow their lead,” he said. “Things will improve quickly.”

He believes the key is for the Japanese government to initiate a normalization of diplomatic relations. “If Japan did that, then they could establish an embassy in Pyongyang and then actually start learning more about the country,” he reasoned.

He said he believed that was the only way to deal with the issue that has always been a stumbling block as far as Japan is concerned: that of the “abducted persons” — Japanese citizens who were kidnapped in the 1970s and ’80s and taken to North Korea to work for the regime.

Hatsuzawa hopes that his book might help create a mood among the public that would accept a normalization of diplomatic ties. “For years now the Japanese media have shown negative images of North Korea,” he said. “I hope people who see the book realize that is not the whole story.”

Ari Hatsuzawa’s “Rinjin: 38-do Sen no Kita” will be published on Dec. 21 by Tokuma Shoten.