Photos by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Text by Ye Charlotte Ming
Draw a straight line between Pyongyang and Seoul, the distance measures 195 kilometers (120 miles), a journey that would take just a few short hours. But the Korean War split the East Asia peninsula into two countries - North Korea and South Korea - leaving travel and communication between their citizens heavily restricted.
Every six weeks, Agence France-Presse photographer Ed Jones flies from Seoul to Beijing to catch a connecting flight to Pyongyang, a trip that takes him 28 hours.
“The privilege of being able to regularly travel between North and South Korea cannot be overstated,” Jones said.
North Korea is one of the most reclusive nations in the world, and foreign media reporting in the country faces well-documented restrictions. Jones is accompanied by a guide at all times, and wandering the streets is strictly off-limits.
“It is an absolutely fascinating and unique place to photograph — full of aesthetics that lend themselves to the creation of captivating pictures,” Jones said of the Hermit Kingdom with 25 million residents.
Restricted access lends photojournalists just a few opportunities to grab snapshots from afar, leaving them to operate within the parameters of military parades, stage-managed events, or “views from the window.”
Jones said he is “drawn to making images of ordinary people doing ordinary things as way of contributing to a gradually expanding view of the country.”
“I wanted to find a project with a collaborative element that would help generate opportunities to interact with ordinary people,” Jones said.
Once he'd finish covering an assigned event, Jones began approaching people to take their portrait.
“People are usually interested and receptive to the idea,” he said. “On rare occasions when people do turn down a request for a portrait, I suspect the reason is the same as anywhere else, which is that understandably, sometimes people don't particularly want to be photographed.”
The level of interaction Jones has with the subject varies depending on the person. “[It] can be anything from a nod and a smile to a protracted discussion about a favorite North Korean music group,” Jones explained.
His subjects, told where to stand but not how to pose, range from farmers to artists, steelworkers to hairdressers. Their images were unavailable to outside viewers for decades, but show that the citizens of the world's most mysterious country are surprisingly ordinary.
Although Jones’ photos offer a fresh and intimate look into North Korea, he acknowledges the photos and his subjects’ willingness to cooperate may not be representative of the country as a whole. “[The portraits] represent exposure to only a tiny and privileged cross-section of North Korean society, because currently the majority of the portraits are from Pyongyang, a showcase city,” he said.
Jones hopes to make the portrait series an ongoing project. “I've got about 45 [images], so just over 25 million to go.”
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