Taylor Pemberton is an ordinary American tourist who managed to capture some of the most extraordinary images of North Korea.
The 26-year-old from Minneapolis, Minnesota, documented a four-day trip to the mysterious military state and posted it on his Instagram account.
Pemberton managed to reach Pyongyang from Beijing, China, where all his electronic gadgets, including cameras, memory cards and phones, were screened upon entry. As is the standard procedure with other foreigners coming to visit North Korea, he had to declare all his communication devices, such as literature, art and even food in his luggage.
North Korea considers itself a self-reliant socialist state. One of the benefits, they proclaim, is the subsidizing of core necessities: housing, healthcare, education, food, general commodities, etc. One of the things I noticed right away is that clothing choices appear standardized. Men generally wear slacks, dress shoes, and collared shirts. There are no consumer brands, no logos, no advertisements. There is most definitely nothing provocative or alluring worn or presented in public. It reminded me of simpler times, perhaps the early 20th century (minus the hats). After asking about this, I was told there are very few options to choose from, almost a ’rationing’ of sorts. It was tough to get a clear answer, and I think the mere curiosity seemed confusing to begin with. One thing you can always expect to see, however, is the pin displayed near the breast pocket… this time, a dual representation of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. #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been artificially fabricated, and most of the history we discussed contained precomposed images to support various historical references.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
Although Pemberton was eventually allowed to roam around, a liaison officer was constantly with him and kept abreast of nearly everything the American traveler was up to – especially which photos were OK to click.
“Each night you’re granted ‘leisure time’ but you’re limited to roaming inside your hotel that’s strategically placed on an island,” Pemberton told BBC’s Newsbeat.
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
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
Despite being under strict and constant surveillance, Pemberton says it’s not as difficult for Western tourists to visit North Korea as people generally assume. There are various tourism companies that offer trips to the Hermit Kingdom.
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
The Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder is generally known for a similar series of photos and videos from North Korea. However, Pemberton’s short trip stands out for the simplicity of the stories he tells through his images – a lot like the popular photo journalistic work by Brandon Stanton of “Humans of New York.”
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
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
Pemberton concluded his journey encouraging others “to view the complexity in this country” in hopes of revealing “a fair picture that swings both ways.”
My perspective into North Korea is only one small version of what exists. I want to encourage a wider opportunity to view the complexity in this country and hope to reveal a fair picture that swings both ways. I just learned about @furqanrai who also was in NK while I was there. Peep his stuff, some really nice and different shots! #contrateur