A Look Behind the Veil of a Hidden Society with Photographer JULIA LEEB

By Sarah Heikkinen

Fall 2014

When North Korea makes headlines in the news, the first thoughts that cross the minds of those in the Western world are generally about Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un and nuclear bombs and nuclear tests and the country”s isolation from the rest of the world. If we think of the country”s citizens at all, we think of them as brainwashed victims of an oppressive dictator. We hardly ever consider what their actual lives might be like, and how similar or dissimilar those lives might be to our own.

In Julia Leeb’s new photo-essay, North Korea: Anonymous Country, the hidden lives of the North Korean people are exposed to Western society in a manner unlike anything seen before. Leeb, a German photojournalist, explores the mysterious country under the guise of a tourist, photographing its people and architecture during a time where threats of war between North and South Korea were imminent. Through pictures of laughing Korean men and women and a first-person view of the country’s extraordinary architecture, she erects a window in the wall between our cultures, allowing us a glimpse at an otherwise opaque society.

Sarah Heikkinen: In your new book, North Korea: Anonymous Country, you capture images that a large percentage of the Western world would never be exposed to. Can you explain why you made the choice to travel to the “anonymous country” that is North Korea?

Julia Leeb: North Korea is the the most isolated country in the world. The only thing we know about this enigmatic and mysterious place is the face of Kim Jong Un and the military parades. But what about the 24 million people who are living there? How do they live? What is their culture? I was curious and wanted to have a look behind the veil of a hidden society.

SH: What surprised you the most about North Korea? The people, the architecture, the atmosphere?

JL: The architecture is quite exceptional to the rest of the world. After the war, North Korea was completely destroyed. Due to socialistic solidarity the new regime was able to reconstruct a country from the scratch. The result is colossal architecture that represents the state ideology. The pharaonic monumentality affect the people”s perception on a daily basis. For Westeners it”s quite surprising to see that in North Korea the individual only exists in relation to the collective. This can be seen in the Arirang mass games. But most surprising to me were the people. They are disciplined, smart, and curious. Even though they live in a totally different system, with their own perception of space and time (they live in the year Juche 103), we have more in common than I thought. I was surprised that we had the same humor and could laugh about the same things.

SH: You mentioned in an interview with Cool Hunting that tensions were high when you arrived for your second trip in 2013. Did the threats of possible war between North and South Korea adversely affect your trip?

JL: When I arrived the second time, the armistice agreement was declared nullified. Due to travel warnings, we were almost the only tourists. Most of the time we were the only guests in hotels, sometimes in entire cities.

SH: What was it like to be constantly under the supervision of the Korean tour guides?

JL: In North Korea, not just the inhabitants are isolated, but also the visitors. We had no access to the outside world. We could not make a phone call, could not use internet, TV, or newspapers. We couldn”t even ask other foreigners what was going on in the outside world. People started to talk about self-defense. War was not an abstract term anymore. It was a strange atmosphere.

SH: Do you have any particularly special experiences you’d like to elaborate on from your two trips to North Korea?

JL: There were many special moments. One night we stopped the car and organized mussels from locals. We sat around a stone table and arranged the mussels on it. Our driver drenched the shellfish with gasoline and set them on fire. This night we were not representatives of two different systems, but just normal people sitting barefoot around a special barbecue, using the beams of the headlight as source of light, relishing an unexpected delicacy.

SH: In the eyes of the rest of the world, North Korea has been transformed into this completely alien culture. After spending some time there, under the guise of a tourist, how do you view the country now, as opposed to how you viewed it before you visited?

JL: North Korea is cut off from the rest of the world. They live in their own reality. I had the impression that they feel threatened by the outside world.

SH: How do you hope the rest of the world will react to your book?

JL: In my eyes, North Korea is already the most quarantined country in the world. You can”t isolate it more. With the book, I wanted to initiate a visual dialogue from the ground. The start is to give North Koreans a face beyond politics, and bring faces of North Koreans into our world.

Julia Leeb is a photojournalist. The emphasis of her work is on areas in political upheaval. For example, she’s done long-term projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and Iran. Her pictures from war-torn countries have been published in numerous publications, including the F.A.Z, die Zeit, and La Stampa.



Written by Sarah Heikkinen

Photography by Julia Leeb & Courtesy of teNeues

Design by Francesca Rimi


Photography by Julia Leeb & Courtesy of teNeues

back to main article page ›