David Guttenfelder on Photojournalism in North Korea

David Guttenfelder on Photojournalism in North Korea

On March 27, the Georgetown University Lecture Fund welcomed David Guttenfelder, eight-time winner of World Press Photo Award and a Photographer for National Geographic, to share his experience photographing North Korea. Following the event, GJIA sat down with Mr. Guttenfelder to discuss what it’s like to work in North Korea, as well as in other conflict areas such as Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iran.


GJIA: During your presentation, you emphasized the kindness and respect people showed you in North Korea, which contradicts the narrative that visitors from the U.S. are perceived as an external threat. Could you expand on that?

DG: I was tightly controlled in North Korea, but the people I met along the way, even though they were taught that they face an existential threat from the U.S., were able to differentiate between governments and people. That’s not always the case in the U.S., but in most other places I’ve traveled, people are able to separate governments from people. So, I was treated as a person, not just as an American or a journalist.


What role and impact do you believe pictures can have in international affairs, particularly in the way we view other countries like North Korea? 

I thought I would go to North Korea and be a critical journalist who uncovers hidden parts of the country, but in the end, what made the biggest impact was something hidden in plain sight: the real people we can relate to there. It sounds simple, but I’ve had people question why I humanize these people who are our ‘enemies’ because they see the power of engaging people. It makes you think differently about what policies and opinions you’re going to support.


You’ve also done a lot of work with social media, especially Instagram. How have you seen these new mediums of engaging with content shaping the field of photography itself? 

Nowadays, tourists can go to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), take photos, and post them on Instagram. I think that social media is every bit as powerful as newspapers. People are going around the world and sharing what they see, and doing the same work that I’m doing as a journalist in trying to open a window. The way that we all experience, photograph, and share our experience has a huge impact not only on photojournalism, but also on making the world much smaller. We have people from the rural areas of Iran posting pictures of their lives every day, and suddenly it makes the world feel a bit smaller.


Based on your experiences, what internal changes have you witnessed in North Korea, and what is in store for the people’s future?

There’s a lot of foreign currency and a lot of rapid social changes, some superficial but some that are real. There are changes in people’s ability to engage in free markets. In addition, with new leadership and the nuclear card in play, the world now has to listen. Some changes are small and incremental, but right now I think North Korea is stronger as a country and has to be taken seriously by the rest of the world.


We often discuss the duty of journalists to ‘speak truth to power.’ What has this meant for you as a photojournalist, not only in North Korea but also in Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iran?

When I worked for a community newspaper, this idea was very simple: you look for the truth and you know who the power is. But when you get further and further out in the world, the truths are harder to find, and which powers you’re actually speaking to becomes complicated. North Korea is a good example of this. I have to ask myself what I am looking for when I’m there, and what powers I am speaking to. I thought I would be speaking to the North Korean regime, but I realized I was speaking more to a global community and the stereotypes of North Korea. It just gets more and more complicated.


You started in community journalism before moving to broader experiences internationally. How have you matured as a photographer from those experiences?

When I was younger, I valued a photo that said something about the subject, but which also said a lot about me. I might have taken a photo about Liberia, but I also wanted it to show that I myself was brave or smart. Those are the mistakes you make, especially when you’re younger. You tend to take photographs that are loud, but you get humbled so many times that the photos becomes less about you, and the pictures become more subtle, complex, and carry more meaning.


In the recent political climate, the value of journalism, including photojournalism, has been put into question, whether because of mainstream media or claims of fake news. What advice do you have for younger people who may be interested in media but hesitant because of those challenges?

I feel personally hurt when I hear comments about fake news, because I’ve based my whole adult life on a sense of purpose, and the understanding that trained, selfless, and brave people are going out into the world to do some good. I believe in what I do and in all the colleagues I’ve worked with, who have sacrificed so much; we’re doing something vital to our democracy and to the world. It’s painful to see that mission so easily dismissed or called fake news, and to hear us called the enemy of the people.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

David Guttenfelder is a National Geographic Photographer focusing on geopolitical conflict, conservation, and culture. He has spent more than 20 years as a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Nairobi, Abidjan, New Delhi, Jerusalem, and Tokyo, covering world events in nearly 100 countries. In 2011, he helped open a bureau in Pyongyang for the Associated Press, making it the first western news agency to have an office in North Korea, where Guttenfelder himself has made nearly 40 trips. Guttenfelder is an eight-time World Press Photo Award winner and a seven-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is the 2013 ICP Infinity Prize winner for photojournalism and has received the Overseas Press Club of America John Faber, Olivier Rebbot, and Feature Photography awards. Pictures of the Year International and the National Press Photographers Association have named him Photojournalist of the Year. In 2016, a photograph he took in North Korea was named among TIME Magazine's "100 Most Influential Photographs Ever Taken."