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A Photographic Tour Of A Country That Doesn't Like Cameras

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German photojournalist Julia Leeb made two trips inside North Korea in 2012 and 2013, and she took photos that offer a glimpse into perhaps the most isolated and mysterious country in the world.

She's collected some of what she saw in a new book of photographs called North Korea: Anonymous Country. She hoped to capture life as best she could, given the restrictions on her travel.

On both trips, Leeb traveled on tourist visas, and she had to sign an agreement that she was there as a tourist and not for any other purpose. At some point on her second trip, Leeb says, her guides started to suspect that she might be more than just a tourist. Her passport was seized, and she was closely monitored by North Korean officials. Eventually, her passport was returned to her, but there were many more restrictions placed on just what she could photograph while she was there.

In general, though, the rules about photographing were best illustrated when it came to two larger-than-life bronze statues of the former leaders, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, and his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, who ruled for more than four decades before his death in 1994.


Interview Highlights

On photographing the statues of former leaders

You have to bow ... out of respect, and if you take pictures, you should take the entire statue. You cannot take a portrait, for example ... because it's a lack of respect. And you cannot take pictures from behind. ...

They are very, very nervous about this. Even if you enter the country and you have a newspaper, you are not allowed to fold a newspaper [with an image of the leader].

On her photograph of glass-encased rubber boots

There are hundreds of farmers living in a collective, and the Great Leader [Kim Jong Il] came once and he had a look at the boots, and since then, they have like a religious status.

On being monitored

Everybody who enters the country has two guides and one driver. They are monitoring us, but they are also monitoring each other. ... The driver, he just speaks Korean, and he is checking out if they are talking in their language [to each other]. ... They spoke absolutely perfect German, without accent, and they have never been to Germany. ...

[The guides] were asking me what people think about North Korea. I tried to be polite but I had to tell them that they don't have the best reputation and that many people think about North Korea as an aggressor, and the guides were like, 'That's not true. You outside world threaten us. We just try to defend ourselves.' ...

They try to give you a very good picture of their country, but it's obvious that there are problems. And then of course, due to the sanctions, they are also politically isolated.

On whether she got a sanitized picture of North Korea

To be honest, when you drive like 3,000 kilometers through the country, you cannot hide a country. Yes, of course, a lot of things are controlled, but I'm not blindfolded.

On what she learned

I'm totally amazed by the people. I don't support the dictatorship, the government, the politics, but the people — they are amazing people, and they are so disciplined and so curious. ...

[The book is] my vision. A lot of politics stop just having dialogue, and my vision is to have a dialogue with the people from North Korea, and the beginning is to give them a face outside the world, and one day maybe they will see our faces.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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