For many, North Korea is unknowable behind heavy walls and an iron dictatorship – but Eric Lafforgue peels back the curtain to expose its human side
Sony ambassador Eric Lafforgue has been banned from North Korea for refusing to delete the photos he took in the autocratic state. But before that ban, his six visits to the clandestine country gave him a glimpse of its other face – the face that wasn’t headline news, bullish nuclear programmes, or the death of American student Otto Warmbier. His images show a side of life rarely seen in the press.
Lafforgue has been published in magazines and newspapers including Geo, National Geographic and Lonely Planet.
Q: What first got you interested in photographing North Korea?
EL: I must confess that I did not imagine it was possible to visit North Korea when I first went there in 2008. After seeing an ad for a tourist’s tour, I still thought it wouldn’t be possible to take any pictures. So it was kind of a challenge to go there and to try to come back with pictures! Back then, only 20 French tourists went to North Korea – and 19 of them were from the French communist party.
Q: What did you want to convey through these images?
EL: During my first trips I wanted to show only what I saw, as very few pictures were available in agencies and the press. I took thousands of pictures. I had a huge library. So for my three last trips – before they banned me – I was more confident with my guides and the risks I could take. I decided to show what North Korea is outside of the propaganda speeches. It is not easy, as the guides monitor everything you do, but after lunch – when everybody has drunk soju – it is easier to take photographs! My last stories in North Korea were about the people’s lives, the way they are educated, the ways in which they have fun. I met humans, not robots, even though the state is a dictatorship. I tried to show this too.
Q: What you think the greatest public misconception about North Korea is?
EL: We must separate the people and the regime. People in North Korea are incredibly warm and welcoming, even though contact may be complicated. Year after year, I came back to villages to see people, and they did not forget me. They are all under the propaganda apparatus, and have to follow it. Only once during my six trips did a North Korean man tell me that he was disappointed by the regime! So we must not forget that North Korea is a country – with jobs, an economy, rich and poor. They are not only political prisoners. It is possible to converse with them, as many young people speak English.
Q: How did you gain access to your subjects under such strict media control?
EL: I always went there as a tourist, as journalists are not free to visit the places they want. I also tried to explain to my guides how bad their image was in France, and as a result they helped me to show things so that people might see them in another light. It is important for me to say that I treated them as people from any other part of the world. But I was still free to say what I wanted. When they saw my work on the Internet, they asked me to delete a lot of the images. I refused, and so they banned me.
Q: How would you describe the political atmosphere in the country?
EL: In 2008, the atmosphere under Kim Jong-il was heavy, as people suffered a lot. When Jong-un came into power, there was great hope to open the country up, especially among the youth. They now have mobile phones, and a lot of stuff is coming into the country through USB sticks… mindsets are changing, and the country looks more and more like China in the 1980s. More and more visitors come into North Korea each year, so things are improving. But the regime is still strict, and operates under an illusion. The recent death of the American student Otto Warmbier shows how cruel the regime has remained.
Lafforgue’s full portfolio is available at www.ericlafforgue.com.