Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
- Raphael (R): I’m a French photographer, originally from Paris, living and working in Asia since 2007. My personal work covers mostly architecture and urban documentary, while my commercial work includes corporate & industrial assignments, hospitality, luxury events etc.
Your Personal Series are of Asian countries. Are you interested in Asian culture?
- R: I spent all my adult life in Asia so I guess I do have an interest for Asian culture(s) and history. But also for anyone interested in architecture, urban studies and industrial development, Asia is such a fascinating playground. Most of the world’s population lives in Asia and the majority of megacities and super-structures on Earth are in this region. Asia is an endless source of energy and inspiration so it’s no wonder so many photographers and creatives are attracted to this place.
How did you even start or have the thought of going over to North Korea?
- R: Travelling to the DPRK from China is quite easy, and many people around me had already travelled to Pyongyang on a variety of organized tours. The first time for me to set foot in North Korea was in 2015 at the time of the Pyongyang Marathon, not to run it but just because there was a super promo from Shanghai to spend 24 hours in Pyongyang for an express visit, so I jumped on the opportunity. And this was really an eye opener, a mind blowing experience, I fell in awe. Everything in this place was so radically different from anything I’d seen before, that’s when I decided I would need to go back for a longer stay.
Tell us about your experience over there?
- R: I returned to Pyongyang in July 2016 for a week long “architecture tour” with specialist travel agency Koryo Tours. Tourism in the DPRK is way easier than most people think. The country is open to foreign travellers (even Americans) and travelling conditions are really decent. You sleep in a hotel with hot shower, get around in a private bus with driver, eat in restaurants with varied and delicious food. It’s far from a “hardcore” destination. I’ve done other travels in Asia, Africa and even Europe that were much more challenging.
Were cameras already allowed when you went over?
- R: Yes, no problem to bring a camera in North Korea, only lenses over 200 mm are not allowed, but even this I’ve heard is not strictly enforced. Anyway this wasn’t a problem for me as I was interested to see and photograph architecture, using mostly wide-angle lenses.
Your shots speak of a different dimension/era altogether. Did you have any difficulties capturing that essence?
- R: I think the “essence” of North Korea is really obvious and in-your-face everywhere you go in this country. The colors, designs, dressing codes, wall papers, monuments… every element of North Korea just seems to come straight from the 50’s. Pyongyang is incredibly photogenic. The only challenge is that organized tours in the country are well planned, with tight schedules and not much flexibility, so photographs had to be done relatively quickly, not always in the best light or angle, and many buildings I would love to photograph were not open to visits. Any trip to the DPRK is always a compromise, but overall I’m very happy with the access we were offered on this particular trip.
What do you wish people would know more about of North Korea?
- R: I hope my photos will help people realize that aside from Western media’s evil depictions, North Korea is actually a beautiful country with a rich history and unique culture, which is surprisingly well preserved and definitely worth exploring. We live in a complex world where nothing is just black or white, and regardless of our more-or-less informed opinions and pre-conceptions, getting down on the ground and seeing things first hand is the best way to open up frontiers and lead to better mutual understanding.
Takeaway message for the readers?
- R: I often get the same usual questions about North Korea, so I want to emphasize the fact that while travelling to Pyongyang I always felt safe and well taken care of, met lots of great friendly people, curious, funny and eager to share about their life and culture, and overall had a fantastic time. The country felt very real and human, sometimes much more than in our modern societies where everyone is glued to a smart phone, becoming increasingly selfish, superficial and boring. North Korea was refreshing.
Read on for more about Raphael!
33 // Aries
Creative Approach // Trying to stay simple, consistent, keeping storytelling real and honest. Not always trying to acquire the newest and most expensive gear, but rather striving to find something better and more interesting to put in front of my lens.
Fact // I came a long way from nothing, trained myself to photography and turned it into a full time occupation and lifestyle, which has been my personal window to see the world and discover myself as a person. It sounds cliché, but I do believe anything can be achieved with passion, dedication and hard work.
Message // From what I’ve seen, breaking out of your comfort zone can be scary but is a vital step into developing. Very much like a child learning to walk, where each step means taking a risk but eventually results in building a standing, independent person.
FUSSY // Shoes. I believe you need to wear good shoes to do good work.