Visiting North Korea with Frühtau

In a span of a decade, Flickr member and world traveler Frühtau took trips to North Korea and photographed the isolated country that’s largely unknown to many of us.

Pyongyang station

Do you primarily live in Asia, or do you just travel there frequently?

I lived in Beijing for about a year, but stay in Germany now. I still visit China and its neighboring countries once a year.

What fascinates you about North Korea? How many times have you been there?

North Korea possesses a special magnetism that’s indescribable. To me, it’s about the visible naivety, lifestyle, and fate of North Koreans. They live within a culture of ever-present secrets that parallels former East and West divisions of Germany. The country also consists of truly magnificent landscapes and architecture. All these aspects inspired me to travel there four times in the last 10 years.

Pyongyang metro (Chonsung station) Whisper...whisper... Farmer Tongbong cooperative farm

Your photos are mostly scanned slides, even from your most recent trips. Why slide film?

I cherish old-fashioned analog. All of my extensive equipment is for analogue photography. Working with film, and it’s technology, is such a pleasure that I like to keep using it as long it’s available and affordable.

What are the most important guidelines you follow as a foreign photographer in North Korea?

First, approach the country and it’s people with an open-minded and friendly attitude that’s free of prejudice. Don’t behave there like a bull in a forest. Be respectful. Otherwise, you’ll run into walls and exclusion. If you follow these rules, you’ll access much more opportunities and may find surprising details about the country.

Second, remain flexible with your own standards through receptive engagement with its citizens and keep calm.

Third, respect occasional restrictions and prohibition of photography and other rules for foreign visitors.

Pyongyang fun fair

Which of your photos of North Korea on Flickr do you like especially, and why?

I love the portraits of people. Since they are taken under limited circumstances caused by North Korean rules, most of my favorite captures come from quick snapshots. It’s much easier to shoot portraits in other countries.

north korea, DPRK, Mount Paekdou

What was your first camera? If you had to pick just one camera to shoot with from now until the end of time, what would that be?

I started about 25 years ago with a Nikon FM2 camera. Currently, I work with a Nikon F90 and Nikon F4. In the future, I’m thinking about getting a Nikon F5. And after I eventually change to digital photography, I’d go with a Canon 7D.

What’s one tip that you would share with someone who’s just getting serious with photography?

Although digital photography is ubiquitous now, I highly recommend everyone who is digging into photography to spend one or two years playing around with an analog camera. Because with film photography, you learn a lot about camera technology and gain a clear understanding of the interplay of f-stops and shutter speeds, a good feel for light conditions and subjects — knowledge that applies to digital photography as well.

Frühtau, thank you for the interview.

Explore more of Frühtau in his photostream and the DPRK set.

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Product Chief and Americas GM at EyeEm, former Head of Product at Flickr and mobile product guy at Yahoo. Photographer and writer of a few tech books.