Photographer Given Rare Access to North Korea Photographer Mark Edward Harris traveled to North Korea for the mass gymnastic games and gathered vivid snapshots throughout the country. His photographs are collected in a new book, Inside North Korea.
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Photographer Given Rare Access to North Korea

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Photographer Given Rare Access to North Korea

Photographer Given Rare Access to North Korea

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now "Inside North Korea." Not its nuclear program but the daily life of its citizens. Photographer Mark Edward Harris visited the country in 2005 at the invitation of the government. He witnessed the country's famed Mass Games, a highly choreographed gymnastic event. Harris's photos of the games are featured in his new book, called "Inside North Korea."

Mr. MARK EDWARD HARRIS (Photographer): There's 10-20,000 students holding up placards that make mosaics of various themes that are important to the North Korean people. One you see everywhere is of Kim Il-sung. There's another one that extols the virtues of Juche, which is the - sort of the state religion of self-reliance. And then on the field there's thousands of performers doing various gymnastic type routines. It's overwhelming. In fact, Madeleine Albright was there in 2000 and I think expressed just how amazed she was at the synchronization of thousands and thousands of people.

ELLIOTT: Now, you spent four days in Pyongyang.

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

ELLIOTT: And you also had an opportunity not just to witness the spectacle of the games, but you were able to get around the city and take pictures of everyday life. There's a particular picture I'd like to ask you about of these two schoolgirls, and they look very familiar. They have baseball caps on and their hair pulled back in ponytails with little scrunchies. One of them has on a pink backpack and they're just walking across the street. Then behind them there's like an old model car and then a huge mural of Kim Il-sung. I'm wondering, when you were there, did you find that things were familiar like these two little girls, or did North Korea feel like an alien place to you?

Mr. HARRIS: Both. You know, to see - I had been to the former Soviet Union all the way to Siberia. I was used to seeing Lenin all over the place and daily life going on (unintelligible) with people not particularly paying attention to the murals. It's just part of their landscape. What is unusual is when you wake up in the morning to this music blaring throughout the city in the wee hours of the morning. That's the music that everybody wakes up to. And it was sort of this spooky ET type of music. So that was very surreal.

ELLIOTT: Now, how did people react when you went to try to take their picture? Were they welcoming to you?

Mr. HARRIS: Definitely. I would say people were more than willing to smile or be in a photograph. I wasn't looked upon with any great suspicion. I would say it was more curiosity than anything else.

ELLIOTT: Were you ever at all concerned that what you ended up with is a collection of photographs that portray North Koreans in a way that the North Korean government really intended for you to capture?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, they definitely brought us to places that they wanted us to see. But I think I experienced too many moments of just passing by people on the streets, them going on their trolleys from one place to another. So we observed daily life as it goes on day to day there, and it couldn't have been scripted, you know, for my camera.

ELLIOTT: Mark Edward Harris just released a new book of photos called "Inside North Korea." You can see a selection of those photos at npr.org. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. HARRIS: Debbie, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

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