Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un have this in common: Both enjoy loyal followings.
True, the Supreme Leader, as Kim is known, is in another league as far as pure numbers go, swith 24 million people in his grip as ruler of the world’s most controlled society. But Guttenfelder has impressive totals of his own. The Iowa-born photojournalist, who has been photographing in North Korea since the AP became the first Western organization to open a bureau in the capital of Pyongyang, has now hit 100,000 fans and growing on his Instagram feed.
Guttenfelder’s main responsibility, of course, is to report the news—satellite launches, military parades, appearances of the Supreme Leader, and the like—for his employer. But his deeper purpose, for the AP as well as for himself, is to find glimpses of unscripted, everyday life in a place governed by conformity and fear.
This year, North Korea introduced 3G network service for mobile devices, a perk reserved only for qualified foreigners and high-ranking locals. So Guttenfelder was handed a valuable new tool: the ability to instantly upload images on Instagram. Since then, Guttenfelder, despite tight regulation of his movements and the constant presence of a minder, has been posting almost daily during his stints in country, using an iPod Touch and iPhone. Not to be outdone, the North Korea government has established its own daily Instagram feed.
Following is a Q&A session with Guttenfelder, interviewed this month from a hotel room in Pyongyang, where he lives during his weeks-long visits. A photo gallery, chosen by NGM Senior Photo Editor Elizabeth Krist and Chris Combs, Photo Editor, News, samples his Instagram posts.
David, what makes an “Instagram moment” in North Korea?
It’s the quiet moments on the margins, those that I often run past while trying to get a news picture. They don’t make headlines, but it’s these little moments, the little details, that help people understand this place and what it feels like for me to live here.
So Instagram satisfies a personal need?
At first it was just a creative outlet. I liked the different format: The image is square; it has a retro-looking feel. It was an escape for me from work requirements. Then it became more than that. In March when North Korea opened up 3G networks and allowed us to bring in smart phones, suddenly that creative Instagram moment was one I could share directly with people. This is a place where there hasn’t been much photography, a place people know almost nothing about, and I now share pictures about it with a whole new audience.
How big is your audience?
It started out at 15,000 to 18,000 followers, and just today [April 19] it went to 100,000. That’s the circulation of a small daily newspaper! There are a lot of people on Instagram who have big followings. And people follow for different reasons. But I think I’m followed because people like my photography, and also because they are fascinated by this country.
It’s hard for a Westerner to be invisible in North Korea. With your phone camera do you feel less obtrusive taking pictures?
Definitely. The phone is small, it’s disarming, and it fits in my back pocket. Plus, what I’m doing is very recognizable. It’s very common here to see people taking pictures with their phones. They’re taking pictures of their families and friends, just like any other place in the world. Of course they can’t post them to a social network, but they show me photos of their newborn babies and I show them pictures from my personal life.
Do you think you have followers in North Korea?
Maybe. I know some people have access to the Internet. It’s interesting that the feed for the North Korea Instagram is, I think, being managed by someone in Germany, probably someone from the North Korea embassy. I occasionally get comments from him or her, and whoever that person is will sometimes click “like” on my pictures and I will do the same on theirs.
The official North Korea photos look like something out of the Saturday Evening Post from the ’50s. What are the government pictures trying to accomplish, in your opinion?
They’re certainly trying to show an idyllic version of their country. They will arrange the whole scene for a photograph. While I try as hard as I can to find my little unique candid moments, they try as hard as possible to rebuild reality into the image they want. They describe themselves as propagandists, and I describe myself as a photojournalist. We both work for news agencies, but we have very different ideas of what role a news agency should have. And I can go even further with Instagram. I am kind of free to photograph anything I see.
You’re a free man in North Korea!
I took a photo yesterday of a woman standing behind a pot of azaleas. I photographed it simply because it was beautiful. I didn’t imagine putting it on the AP wire or publishing it in National Geographic. I didn’t even know what kind of caption I could write.
Do you hang out with the North Korean photographers?
I meet with them. I did a photo workshop with them. The other day I covered a marathon in Pyongyang. There were about a dozen of us photographers standing around, waiting for runners to come back, as news photographers do, and yeah, we talked about photography. Mostly they’re interested in new gadgets. Sometimes I bring them photo books from the outside. Recently I also showed them a copy of National Geographic with photos from other parts of the world. I want to show them how I work so they’ll be more open to me and understand my motivations.
What are your plans for a Saturday in Pyongyang?
Well, my North Korean colleagues at the Korea Central News Agency have to attend their Saturday morning study session. I can chill for a few hours and then I’ll see what is happening in the city. After the recent tension, there’s not a lot going on right now, making it hard for me to deliver news photography that people are expecting. That’s why Instagram is so perfect—any picture goes.