This is what the lives of ordinary North Koreans are like

Photos of everyday life in the secretive state

As Matjaž Tančič tells it, nothing about his stereoscopic 3D photography project 3DPRK was easy. Perhaps that’s to be expected when you’re trying to shoot in North Korea. For Tančič, though, the project was worth the trouble to get beyond the standard labels attached to the country and focus on its citizens.

Tančič, a Beijing-based Slovenian photographer with an impressive moustache and a penchant for leather jackets, describes the project as a way to get past the binary view of North Korea as either an oppressive hell or absurd workers’ paradise, depending on who does the explaining. Together with Vicky Mohieddeen, a producer with Koryo Studio, the arts branch of travel company Koryo Tours, he travelled through North Korea with a driver and two state-appointed guides.

The result is a series of 3D portraits of ordinary North Koreans, now on display at Pekin Fine Arts. The photos were also shown in what Tančič describes as the first foreign photographic art show held in the DPRK. Here, we let Tančič explain, in his own words, the difficulties and triumphs behind some of his favourite portraits.

1. Ri gyong Sun, 45, maintaining Ancient History Section, Folk Park Pyongyang


‘This is one of my favourites. They dropped us in one of these parks with [miniature versions of] sights, like the World Park in Beijing. I saw this lady, I think she was sweeping up or plucking weeds, and I thought it was perfect. We walked around to find the perfect place, and I asked her if she could stand in front of this grand hall. She just looked at it and said, “Oh, I cannot stand up because there are portraits of leaders there, and I cannot be higher than they are.”

‘I was like: “Oh f**k, I just spent hours finding a location and getting here.” I asked, “What if you just kneel down?” And that was okay. She was so confident and willing to be in the portrait. Usually people said they didn’t have time, but she was super confident. It really shows in the photo. Even though she’s a bit older, she’s the most feminine and prettiest of all the portraits.’

2. Yu Hyol Sim, 20, swimmer, Munsu Wading Complex


‘It was almost impossible to shoot at the water park too, but then we managed to get it, this girl in a swimsuit. To just go down and get a swimmer and pull her out of the pool and get her in front of a background while 300 swimmers are staring at her was definitely not easy for her at all.’

3. Ri Yong Min, 21, 52kg boxing champion, Amnokgang sports team, outdoor ice rink


‘At the ice rink, there was one guy who was an absolutely amazing looking hipster, in our terms. He had cool high-waisted pants with a cool belt and an undershirt tucked in the pants. Amazing hair. I wanted to shoot him, but they said he had to wear a jacket and be tidied up. That completely loses the point.

‘There was another guy behind me who was like, “Me, me!” But he was too young and smiled too much – he was boring. In the end, I said okay. I talked with him and he was actually really cool. He was a boxing champion in a youth league, so he was interesting and really talkative. It was one of my most pristine and genuine talks with locals.

‘We took the photo, and I don’t know how or why, but he looks completely opposite [of that first impression]. It’s one of my moodiest, darkest... it has the best feeling; it’s one of the strongest portraits. I thought it was going to be the weakest. Everything works, with the light coming from the skylight. It’s completely the opposite of what was there: a cheerful place, everyone laughing and on dates, he was too happy, and then [the photo] just shows like a super moody, almost David Lynch-like feel.’

4. Nam Dong Ho, military guide, UN Hut, DMZ


‘Everything was complicated, from the first hour to the last hour. [The North Koreans] thought I wanted to shoot tourism, and I think that might be how we sold it. They definitely weren’t aware it would be completely based on people. They always took us to a location, in this case the border, and showed us around and had me shoot pictures. To get portraits I always had to be really patient and after they were happy with me being interested, I’d ask, ‘Oh, but can I get one portrait now?’ And there was always some problem. In this case, it’s the most secured border on the planet. But many times we were lucky, either because we were nice or because our guides were really cool and helped. Sometimes we had to wave our press armbands, sometimes we had to hide them. It was all the skills I’ve acquired in shooting portraits [in Beijing].

‘Every portrait I took, I had only about 30-50 seconds with each person, which is nothing when you’re doing 3D. It was ten days that felt like a month because it was mentally and physically so demanding. Every time you see a space like that, we had to check first where the good light is, what’s the [best] position and what would look good in 3D. It can’t be flat or too 3D because then your head explodes.’

5. Won Il Myong, 38, furnace worker, Chollima Steelworks


‘This was the second biggest steel factory in North Korea. It was surreal there. I didn’t care who I was going to shoot or where because everything was just completely overwhelming. There was a band playing in the corner, three singers and one accordion, to support the entire factory. Of course I wanted the most dramatic, old, dirty subject. They asked a guy to come, and of course he was a huge, beautiful, super young, super clean, amazing guy. I didn’t care because it showed the contrast with the dirtiest place. This guy was really striking.

‘I showed these photos to a founder of a photo festival in Texas, he’s like 80 or 90. Out of the blue, he said, “Is this Hamhung? We bombed that factory [in the Korean War]. After we left it was nothing but ash and rubble.” Then he almost refused, just flicked through my photos angrily, because he so hated everything connected to North Korea. He’s a smart photographer, how can he be so emotional about things? I didn’t shoot these to please everyone, otherwise I’d be shooting kitties and dogs in North Korea.’