Pyongyang, North Korea is home to some of the largest shows in the world. The people are taught to perform in school from an early age, for this reason, people photography is prime in North Korea. Popular places for people photography include;
People photography in the street
Practising musicians in a school
Musicians in a show
After dinner when the waitresses become singers
North Korean soldiers
Victory Day Parade
Mass Games or a Football Match
I visited North Korea on a mandatory organised tour. I was staying at the Hotel Yanggakdo and followed the tour itinerary. As a result, you must photograph as you can, there is no waiting around for the perfect shot!
As you pass through Pyongyang there are many people filled scenes. There are historic East German trams full of passengers as they traverse the city. Of course, there is the Pyongyang Metro. You’ll also see groups of people exercising in the street for motivation reasons! Use your common sense when photographing locals as they could be offended if you take their picture without permission. Furthermore, it’s against the law to offend locals. Ask your guide if you’re concerned about offending someone before you take their picture.
Practising Musicians in school
As part of your guided tour you may be invited to a school. If you know in advance that you will visit a school, I recommend bringing some stationary as gifts. It would be a good idea to bring these from home as they’ll be much better value. At the school however, you won’t be visiting a math class, you’ll be treated to a performance by music students. I expect this is good practise for them before they perform to a larger audience, perhaps in the May Day stadium? Consequently, you can make some wonderful people photography during your school visit.
Musicians in a Show
There will be part of your tour which involves watching a live show. Your tour group will be invited to sit in the best seats, shortly afterwards around 1000 more people will fill the audience. This had me thinking, is this a real audience? Another unusual fact was that the performers were looking directly into my camera lens for the majority of my photos! Nevertheless, you will make some excellent people photography during a live North Korean music performance.
During the performance you’ll see singers, dancers, musicians, both male and female. In fact several of the musicians would return to the stage again and again with a different instrument and costume each time, they are highly talented. I recommend you take a camera with good zoom to capture the performers in action. A bridge camera is a good option as a large zoom lens could arouse suspicious when you enter the country. Journalists need special permission to enter North Korea.
After Dinner when the Waitresses become Singers
It’s likely that all your meals are included in your tour price. As a result you have no choice of where to eat, you eat where you’re taken to eat! Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, I enjoyed every meal I had in North Korea. One meal was extra special as the waitresses, after serving the food, became singers and dancers! They performed 2-3 songs as well as inviting a few customers for a dance. Afterwards, they continued their roles as waitresses. During their performance is a good opportunity for taking your action photos.
North Korean traffic police make good people photography. You’ll see them directing traffic in the street as well as around parking areas and during events. Photographing traffic police is not strictly acceptable in North Korea so try taking your photos discreetly. Your guide will not recommend you to photograph the traffic police and if there’s a problem you may have to delete all of your pictures!
North Korean Soldiers
One of the first things that your guide tells you is, ‘do not photograph soldiers’. However, there are some exceptions and I recommend you ask your guide for help in photographing soldiers. That is of course if you have a desire to photograph soldiers! A location where you may be able to photograph a soldier is at the War Museum in Pyongyang. A Chinese speaking female soldier said ‘no’ to photos (above) but an English speaking soldier said ‘yes’.
Another location where you’re guaranteed to take a North Korean soldier photo is at the DMZ. In fact, you can get a photo with a North Korean soldier. You’ll need a couple of boxes of cigarettes as a thank you for the photo. If you tell your guide you would like a photo with a soldier, they will organise it for you. Once you have your photo, shake hands and give him the cigarettes. In addition, you can take pictures of the soldiers here anyway while they are explaining the situation at the DMZ.
If you visit Pyongyang during the Victory Day celebrations you may see some veteran soldiers. Some of these soldiers fought in the Korean war and have uniforms full of military badges.
Victory Day parade
North Korea celebrate Victory Day on 27th July each year. I recommend for ultimate people photography opportunities that you visit for this celebration. Tourists are welcome to watch the performance at Kim Il Sung Square. During the celebration, this square is full of locals dressed up and dancing to traditional North Korean music.
During the performance you’re welcome to take as many photos as you like of the locals. You can get up close and make some excellent action shots! Additionally, you’re welcome to walk through the square and in between the dancers.
As you walk through the square you can photograph the dancers with several different backgrounds. Kim Il Sung Square is surrounded by some of the most impressive structures of Pyongyang therefore excellent photos are guaranteed. Furthermore, if you wish to dance with the locals, your guide can arrange that for you! I recommend you check the dance moves first though.
Mass Games or a Football Match
The ultimate people photography opportunity would be at the Mass Games. These are held at the largest stadium in the world, the May Day Stadium. During the mass games are colorful gymnastics performances. Additionally, the 130,000 strong crowd hold up co-ordinated banners making for unique photos. Alternatively, you could watch the North Korea football team play at the 50,000 capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium (above). If you’re lucky, you may even witness a military parade!
Enjoy your People Photography in North Korea
Enjoy photographing the people of North Korea and I highly recommend co-ordinating your visit with a major event. The Victory Day Parade is possibly the best, as you can get up close to the dancers. An advantage of being in a stadium would be to experience the atmosphere. If you have a zoom camera, you’ll get lots of good photos from the stands anyway.
Most importantly, respect the rules of what you can and cannot photograph, and of course, respect the people!