By the end of √Ålvaro Longoria’s 2015 documentary about North Korea,¬†The Propaganda Game,¬†the filmmaker leaves the¬†authoritarian country, and us, with many questions. These can all be boiled down to, “What is real? What is not?”¬†Journalists visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea do so on a set schedule, and are accompanied at all times. This effort by the North Korean government is to ensure foreigners leave having only witnessed what is state-approved. But it’s observing the local people and their daily routines that provides small clues to the bigger picture.¬†
Omid Scheybani¬†is a German-born Iranian who is based in the States. He spent the last 6 years working at Google and is currently an¬†MBA Candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. His 25k strong Instagram following know him as a smartphone photographer, which is the lens through which he captured these beautiful images on a trip to North Korea late last year. These unique images were captured on an iPhone 6 and are accompanied by a written account of Scheybani’s trip. As a guest of Choui, a Canadian social venture working with non-profit organisations on projects in North Korea, his group was allowed exclusive access to various parts of the country that tourists wouldn’t see. These excursions were chaperoned by government officials, of course.
Observations from his time in the capital, Pyongyang, read in sharp contrast to life that the group was, unintentionally, exposed to on the outskirts:
The very first thing we did after paying respect to the leaders was to visit a local bath. Given that it was the rule to get entirely naked, this became a massive bonding experience for all of us (I will spare you the details). Traditional showers, hot Jacuzzi-like and ice-cold baths, a sauna, full body scrubbing‚Ä¶ ¬±20 white guys, mingling with ¬±10 Koreans.
While traditional, the location itself was a very modern and high-tech establishment (a full-body drying machine that I had never seen). The Koreans I saw were all well-fed, one of them even had an iPhone. The place was quite expensive ($10 entrance fee), and dinner was available for $30, $60 or $90. On other floors, we saw wealthy Koreans sitting at dinner tables in private rooms, very well-dressed, and clearly members of the country‚Äôs elite.
On a 14 hour trip back from the East to Pyongyang, they got to see a different reality: Way past midnight, in deep darkness, and in freezing temperatures, we passed hundreds, if not thousands, of young soldiers, old farmers and women of all ages who were rallied to break the ice from the roads‚Ää‚Äî‚Ääwith rudimentary aids like ice picks, hammers, street signs and spades.¬†
The general summation of his trip was similar to Longoria’s, “In the words of our trip leader:¬†‚Äúthis will be a successful trip if you leave with more questions than when you got here.‚Äù And yes, that was truly the case for me.” But ultimately, he says, “Despite the massive confusion I sensed and the sadness that I witnessed, there were some delightful moments of humanity that I will remember and cherish. Moments that reminded me that after all, despite our circumstances, there remains some basic sense of humanity in us all.”
Omid allowed Casimir to share a selection of his photographs here.