FRONTLINE/WORLD . flashPOINT . North Korea . Interview . PBS

North Korea

Interview with Dong Lin

By Mimi Chakarova

Dong Lin grew up in China and moved to the United States shortly after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. He talks here with FlashPoint curator Mimi Chakarova about his impressions of North Korea during several trips to the notoriously isolated country.

Mimi Chakarova: How did you become interested in North Korea?

Dong Lin: When I go to North Korea, itís like going back in time in China. The political situation in North Korea is similar to what was happening in China during the Cultural Revolution. Itís this similarity that made me interested in documenting North Korea through my work.

"The most challenging aspect of my work was to take pictures of anything outside of what the government allowed. I had to take pictures as discreetly as possible, often without looking through my viewfinder. I was watched all the time."
- Dong Lin
The Photographer
Dong LinDong Lin was born in Beijing. After photographing the student democratic movement demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he moved to San Francisco later that year. As a staff photographer for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, he published his black-and-white documentary photo book One American Reality about homelessness in San Francisco and New York in 1996. From 1998 to 2006, he became a wildlife photographer taking part in international expeditions. Dong Lin currently works as a publisher and photographer for Visuals Press, where he is concentrating on social issues in Burma and North Korea.



Are there any similarities between the two countries now?
At this point, there are no similarities. Although the Chinese government states that China is a socialist country, it really isn’t anymore. North Korea truly fits the definition of a socialist country. Propaganda is everywhere: street signs read, “Korea Is One!,” political banners drape from the sides of buildings, and everyone wears a pin on his or her clothing with an image of the great leader.

What was the biggest challenge of working there?
The most challenging aspect of my work was to take pictures of anything outside of what the government allowed. I had to take pictures as discreetly as possible, often without looking through my viewfinder. I was watched all the time.

How did you achieve such good results?
When you are in a compromised situation, you end up taking as many pictures as you can and hope that some of them will be good. I came out with many junk pictures. But with time, you get better.

Choosing black-and-white film gives your photographs a timeless quality. Was this intentional?
From the moment I became serious about photography, my choice for projects was always black-and-white film. I feel that color distracts, while black and white allows people to see the content directly.

What most surprised you about North Korea?
By our standards, the people of North Korea are relatively poor, but they are not materialistic. Even those who have little don’t seem to want anything more. North Korean people have relatively simple lives; for the most part, they have what they need to survive and they seem happy. They seem mentally rich and don’t care about nonessential items. This is completely different from China, where everyone wants something and consumerism is on the rise.

What is your hope for this project?
I would like to continue documenting North Korea through my photographs, but I’m always afraid that I won’t be able to return. If they open the borders to Westerners, I would welcome the opportunity to return. I would really like to record the country and its people as the political climate changes.

If you were to go back, how would you shoot these photos differently?
Of course, I would like to look through the viewfinder to get the best possible pictures.