• Nicole Reed

Pyongyang and Back Again with Nicole Reed

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Nicole’s trip to North Korea was delayed but she recently returned from a trip to Pyongyang. She was there capturing the unique architecture of the city’s hotels for a photobook being released later this year.

Words by Andy Summons

Photography by Nicole Reed

NORTH KOREA TRIP OVERVIEW

Nicole’s trip to North Korea to document some of the hotels in Pyongyang was a strange and immediately exciting opportunity. It was a curious combination of travel, architectural and interior photography with the exciting potential for some portraits and all in the nearly off-limits setting of North Korea.

“The trip came about because of James Scullin. He worked in China for a while and he started helping out Juche – a travel agency that organises tours to North Korea. He wanted to make a book documenting the hotels in Pyongyang and some mutual friends suggested me as the photographer.”

Nicole Reed

They met up nearly two years ago and began planning their trip, but their timing was off. The political climate was more volatile than usual and they had to push back the trip until March 2019.

“When James first emailed me about the project in North Korea, I was so excited. I was in disbelief for so long – it was a dream project. Travelling to a country that’s so closed off to the rest of the world to photograph architecture and interiors felt like a surreal dream. I didn’t actually believe it was going to happen until I was on the plane from Beijing to Pyongyang.”

I asked Nicole about the morality of traveling to a dictatorship, she sighed, “That’s a heavy question.” The project was not politically motivated, nor was it aimed to make a huge impact on international relations, but it was still being created in a dictatorship. Nicole grappled with the morality and ultimately called it for what it was – another job, even though it was in an extreme setting, it was just another project.

“The morality of visiting a country like North Korea is such a complex question. I didn’t question the morality of going there because this is what photographers and journalists do. We went to a country that has a certain reputation on the world stage and we were making a book on hotels. In the end, as a photographer, it was a job and I was there to capture images of what was there at face value. I wasn’t going there to do anything deeper. It was something I came to terms with and something I can deal with and hopefully other people can too.”

Because they were working on a specific project, James and Nicole had a private tour. Usually group tours range from 20-30 people, but they had two guides and a driver for just the two of them. It helped when it came to shooting the photobook, but Nicole knows she could’ve shot a lot more if she could hide in a group of 30 tourists.

“You can’t go to North Korea on your own, you need to go through a travel company. Juche organised everything for us – our visas, our guides, transport and accommodation. Our guides met us at security and they stay with you the entire time until they drop you back at security at the end of your trip. I didn’t really know what to expect from our guides, but we got to know them quite well by the end of the trip. I thought they were going to be quite stern and serious but they were a lot of fun. They were both women in their late twenties and they spoke immaculate English. I think the first couple of hours while we were driving around the city, we got a lot of carefully curated history and information about the monuments, the city and the leaders. After a little while, they began to relax and they had the best, sarcastic sense of humor. It was so fun getting to know them – they teased us about our western ways and they didn’t mind us teasing them a bit too. We just couldn’t really have a serious conversation about politics. We could talk about it a little bit but it was obvious when they wanted to change the subject – they’d answer your question in a way that dodged the questions completely.”

Nicole Reed

The first thing Nicole noticed about Pyongyang was the otherworldly light. The sky – even the sun – had such a unique softness, it made shooting the city a delight.

“The strangest thing about Pyongyang was the colour of the sky. The sun was quite soft, which created really beautiful tones for the sky and the buildings – I guess it had something to do with the smog created over that part of the world. The city sounds are quite hard to describe. It was quiet but at the traditional peak hour times there was the usual flurry of activity. There are a lot of bicycles but very few cars – most people use public transport. And the streets were so wide that even when there was a bit of traffic, there was so much space.”

While they were in Pyongyang, there was a huge military conference so the city was flooded with soldiers. It was a spectacular sight, but Nicole couldn’t take any photos of them.

“One day we were in the van and needed to turn right, but there was a military convoy walking along the footpath and we weren’t allowed to cross it. So we had to sit in the van and wait while they walked past. They were singing military-style songs that were quite uplifting and stirring. They were walking five or six abreast and it was a solid procession of soldiers marching past us for about 25 minutes. On one hand it was visually and aurally really beautiful – everything was immaculate – but it was also a bit scary seeing such a huge military presence in one place. It’s something I’ve never experienced anywhere, it was amazing.”

Nicole Reed
Nicole Reed

“Most places you can do what you want and apologize later if you get a bad reaction but in North Korea, you need to catch yourself before you act.”

Nicole did get into trouble for taking photographs – she didn’t realise soldiers were in frame, but they did, they saw her and raised the alarm.

“They’re really strict about taking photos of the military and I didn’t want to get our guides in trouble. At one stage I couldn’t help but get some soldiers in frame because they were everywhere. Another time, I didn’t realise they were in frame like the image of the huge sporting stadium. I didn’t even register there were soldiers out the front – they’re so tiny in the frame so I didn’t see them. They blew their whistles and started yelling and pointing at me. And my guide got annoyed and chastised me and we had to go, but I just didn’t even realise. My first reaction was: ‘oh, give me a break, I’m not even taking a photo of you.’ But I had to catch myself a few times and remember where I was. Most places you can do what you want and apologize later if you get a bad reaction but in North Korea, you need to catch yourself before you act. It took me a beat to change that thought pattern. I didn’t feel scared, but I think if they started to come over, I’d have started to freak out.”

Nicole Reed
Nicole Reed
Nicole Reed
Nicole Reed

SHOOTING HOTELS

The guides were invaluable when it came time to photograph the hotels. Some of the hotels didn’t know they were coming, and having a couple of locals explain the project helped get a few hotels over the line, and even facilitated some portraits of workers – one of Nicole’s favourite aspects of the project.

“The first hotel we photographed was the Koryo Hotel where we were staying. Our guides talked to the managers and organised everything for us. Some hotel managers were only really interested if they thought it was going to be beneficial for them. Most places were really good though. We were also really lucky that the guides asked some of the staff to let us take portraits. I got some beautiful portraits and once I’d taken a few I noticed they all had a particular way of standing. It was as if they’d been trained to stand the same way for portraits in school, so all the portraits have quite a similar feel. They look serious and proud. We got a really good mixture of men and women, baristas and bellhops, a manager, pool cleaner, another manager and some stewardesses, and all in immaculate uniforms.”

Nicole ReedNicole Reed

COFFEE

Coffee is an important aspect of travel for Nicole and she was surprised to find some decent coffee in the hotels. There weren’t many cafes around the city, but the hotel cafes offered up a decent brew.

“Coffee is very important to me and it was a luxury there. I think we documented nine hotels and every one we visited, we sat down and had a coffee. The cafes in the hotel are straight out of the 70s – all wood panelling. The Baristas wore uniforms  – they were all so immaculately dressed. There’s no such thing as take away coffee there, so every time we wanted coffee we had to sit in to drink it. They were quite knowledgeable with making coffee – I had a pour over, which was pretty good. I don’t know where they got this idea, but one of my guides asked me if it was true that drinking too much coffee turned your skin darker. So I explained that it might stain your teeth, the same as black tea, but not your skin. She had a latte after that and loved it.”

Nicole Reed

COLD NOODLES, KIMCHI AND A CRUISE BOAT

As a big fan of Korean food, Nicole was excited for the food but, as a coeliac, she was nervous. Once again, the guides came to the rescue and checked with the chefs everywhere they went.

“The food was pretty amazing. I love Korean food anyway and we ate a lot of cold noodles and Bibimbap, and dried Pollock fish which was my favourite. It’s a bar snack. Much better then peanuts! We ate Kimchi for breakfast, lunch, dinner – it was really good.  We ate somewhere different for lunch and dinner every day including a cruise boat one night. It went down the main river and included a show too. There was a band of women who sung and played instruments, and did a magic show – it was amazing.”

“Traveling to North Korea changed my perception of the world and especially my place in it as a consumer.”

VISITING THE HEALTH SPA

The guides took them to a health spa. James went for a shave and had the barbers worried his thick western beard would break their razors, while Nicole and the guides went for a massage.

“We went to a health spa that the locals go to and that was an incredible experience. People go there for haircuts or to have a bath, if they don’t have one in their apartment. There’s a swimming pool and you can get a massage. The guides translated for me so I was able to chat to the masseurs and answer questions from the other women who were at the spa. It was a beautiful pink room with pink furniture and it was like stepping back in time, going in there. I was teased because the massage was quite painful – she put cups on the bottom of my feet – and I was squirming the whole time. She said something to my guide who translated it as: ‘you must put up with the pain now to enjoy the benefits later’.”

Nicole ReedNicole Reed

CHANGING ATTITUDES

The guides took them to a health spa. James went for a shave and had the barbers worried his thick western beard would break their razors, while Nicole and the guides went for a massage.

“We went to a health spa that the locals go to and that was an incredible experience. People go there for haircuts or to have a bath, if they don’t have one in their apartment. There’s a swimming pool and you can get a massage. The guides translated for me so I was able to chat to the masseurs and answer questions from the other women who were at the spa. It was a beautiful pink room with pink furniture and it was like stepping back in time, going in there. I was teased because the massage was quite painful – she put cups on the bottom of my feet – and I was squirming the whole time. She said something to my guide who translated it as: ‘you must put up with the pain now to enjoy the benefits later’.”

Nicole Reed

EXHIBITION

Nicole launched her exhibition ‘Scenes from the people’s paradise’ on Thursday 4th July – the date was a pertinent coincidence. The exhibition runs until the end of the month at Sun Studios’ Skylight Studio – 96 Buckhurst St, South Melbourne.

“The exhibition is made up of images that I took while we were out doing more touristy things – we’ll have an exhibition for the book later in the year. My exhibitions is more focused on Pyongyang’s architecture, the city streets, and its public transport. They’re quite large scale prints and even when I went in to proof them with Elisa at Sun Studios, I saw things in the prints I couldn’t even see in the digital file – workmen on distant roofs and people going to school and a lot of interesting details. I’m printing a newspaper that will be available at the exhibition too. The book is titled The Hotels and North Korea and is going into pre-production now and it’ll be out later this year just in time for Christmas. We’ll have a big launch and an exhibition for that too.”

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Nicole Reed