For Dave Kulesza, everything began with a diving board—the diving board at the Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex in North Korea, to be precise.
“This was my first point of contact into a visual side of North Korea that I wasn’t aware existed, and I was immediately intrigued,” he says. “It didn’t take long before I discovered the color. It was soft, subtle and in abundance, almost juxtaposed against the country’s stereotype.”
Kulesza, an Australian architectural photographer, soon found his fascination with the country’s design growing, and over the course of a couple years—thanks to Google, social media and YouTube series—he began effectively building a shot list in his mind for a nonpolitical series.
Last year, he took the veritable plunge and visited the country, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Here are his reflections following his return—and, of course, some images.
What about the scenes that you discovered in your initial research resonated with you? What potential did you see for a larger photographic project?
The preconceived image of North Korea I had was a grey and gloomy place. The scenes I began discovering in my research appeared as incredible film sets—Wes Anderson film sets in particular. It was initially hard to believe that these were ordinary locations used day to day by the Pyongyang locals. With a background in photographing architecture in Australia, these subjects weren’t common in my day to day and I was naturally drawn and blown away by these spaces and structures. There was never an expectation for a larger photographic project apart from taking my camera and taking some pictures.
Did the project seem like a reality, or a long shot, as you began pondering it?
The project was always a long shot and came across more as a fantasy rather than a reality for a long period of time. The thought of entering North Korea was always an extremely daunting thought given its reputation. My only form of confidence always laid in the trust that a family member of mine, Matt Kulesza, had been working in and out of North Korea as a western tour guide for over three years. The moment the fantasy turned into a reality was when Matt informed me his time as a guide would soon come to a conclusion. This basically fast tracked everything and I was entering North Korea with Matt within two or so months of that notice.
Was obtaining the necessary visas and other documentation to visit difficult?
The process of entering North Korea was actually quite straightforward. All tourists visas are organized through various tour companies and this is the only way a visa can be obtained. I went through Young Pioneer Tours and I was just required to provide my passport details along with requested dates. YPT then liaised with the North Korean tourism industry to organize transport (train) into Pyongyang from our meeting point in China (Dandong), food, accommodation and itinerary.
The government is notoriously averse to critical press. Did you have to state the goals of your project up front or submit your images for a review?
My itinerary was heavily crafted around particular locations and all architecture focused around Pyongyang. I suppose this may have been slightly obscure to the regular tour groups that come through each year. There would have perhaps been a briefing from YPT with the Korea tourism industry on my solo photographic journey, however, as all the locations I would be visiting are “on the menu” for tourists, I don’t believe any red flags would have been raised. I suppose it would be like visiting New York and asking to go see Times Square.
On the night of our arrival in Pyongyang, Matt, our guides and myself all cracked open a bottle of whisky which I brought in as a gift and we began to get to know each other back at the hotel. Amongst various topics, I was casually asked about my background, what my work in Australia involved and what I aim to achieve in photographing various buildings. I explained to the guides my fascination with their structures, the unique colorful design and the history that surrounds the culture of their buildings. It didn’t take me long to realize how insignificant my job as an architectural photographer was in a Socialist society such as North Korea. The role simply doesn’t exist and at times I struggled to explain the reason for my profession. While shooting, I never experienced a moment where images needed to be reviewed, as our guides were always close by and could see the subjects I was photographing. The main rules were no photography of military or construction.
You captured your shots in a whirlwind three days. Why only three days?
Unfortunately there is no sexy reason for the three days. It simply came down to budget and time away from my regular work. Amongst all the travel expenses, I also commissioned Matt to be my Western guide on a private tour. The three-day packed itinerary was certainly mentally exhausting, and in hindsight it would have been great to have an extra day to get involved and enjoy what Pyongyang has on offer. Things like swimming amongst locals at the Munsu Water Park are unique experiences where you get a chance to distance yourself from your guides and mingle with the public to a degree.
Did you arrive with a detailed shot list?
Yes, my shot list was quite detailed in the locations I wanted to visit. Once Matt had an understanding on the particular style of architecture I was looking for, he was able to make suggestions and additions to my existing wishlist. This location shoot list was submitted and approved by the North Korean tourism industry well before I had arrived.
Tell us about your shooting technique.
I brought with me a Canon 5D IV, 24–70mm, 45mm TS, 24mm TS lens and a tripod. The technique of shooting varied depending on the space I was in. In low light areas, such as indoor spaces and underground metros, I was forced to work on a tripod as there was simply no chance of hand-holding the camera and obtaining quality in images. Each space presented its own set of challenges and I suppose I had to think quickly to find a way to overcome them. It felt like the more public the space, the more flexibility I had with strutting around on a tripod and pointing it anywhere I pleased. In more intimate indoor spaces such as bowling alleys, shops, restaurants, etc., there wasn’t much time and it was sometimes a case of “how long do I have until I wear out my camera’s welcome?” In these spaces I quickly learned I needed to just frame up the most important shot, and anything else I could get after that would be a bonus. Freehand shooting was very warmly welcomed in all outdoor scenarios. Although I’m accustomed to shooting on a tripod in my day-to-day work, it simply wasn’t a practical way of shooting on this trip. As there was no real “exploring” ability or even very limited street walks on our tour, car travel between locations was our most common form of transportation and this was not only a great opportunity to absorb lesser-seen parts of Pyongyang, [but] capturing interesting moments through the car window was a very common occurrence.
Since everything was basically dependent on either nailing the shot in the moment or losing it, were you carefully reviewing the images in real time? Or did you just shoot and then do what I imagine was a daunting review when you got home?
Another challenge I had to overcome was shooting to a CF card. As farfetched as that sounds, 95% of my usual workflow involves tethering directly to my laptop, where I can make on-the-spot file adjustments and easily check things like focus. Real-time reviewing was crucial to ensure exposures, shutter speeds and focus were sitting right to ensure maximum image quality. Yes, there was an extremely daunting review once I arrived home and finally pulled the images up on a big screen.
How would you describe the country’s design and color palette?
There seemed to be two types of design—the old and the new. The old came from old forms, buildings erected from as early as [North Korea’s] beginnings in the ’50s during the Kim Il-sung era and extending to the end of the Kim Jong-il era of 2011. These building styles seemed to take on the forms of brutalist structures, grand monuments and generic housing blocks, accenting its Soviet influence. Once built, they stand to this day. There is no need for redeveloping in this Socialist system as each structure was built for a purpose. The only updates made are cosmetic, and they take effective form through color, and particularly pastel colors internally and externally. The new style of architecture is completely unique. Colorful, retro-futuristic buildings, commonly seen along the Mirae Scientists Street, Sci-Tech (atom-shaped) center, reflect the era of current leader Kim Jong-un.
Was it difficult to separate the political realities of the country from its design?
The political reality was clearly visible throughout the country. Depictions of the past leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, in the forms of statues, paintings [and] literature are displayed everywhere and the past Soviet influence can still be seen through the older structures. … It was quite easy for me to separate any political attachment and appreciate the design, as design speaks a universal language and can be appreciated by anybody who chooses to listen to it.
Tell us about the processing involved in the images when you returned home.
The series came together using a common theme of color. The interior spaces were in abundance of color and graphic elements, so apart from general cleaning, they didn’t need too much more. I drew inspiration from the large-scale propaganda murals for the external processing. … Skies were enhanced, manipulated in hue to create interest and possibly add a paint-like direction to them.
Was there anything you were itching to shoot that you didn’t have the chance to or weren’t allowed to?
Yes! The Science and Technology center was very high on my list—a recently completed modern museum sporting a 1:1 scale rocket in its center. This is something that has been open to tourists in the past, however at the time of my visit there was no possibility of getting in. I’m hoping to have the chance of a second series in a few years and the trip will certainly revolve around access to this location.