Portraits from Pyongyang

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
In a photo taken on June 6, 2017 primary school student Kim Song-Jong (9) poses for a portrait during a festive 'children's day' event at 'Primary School Number 4' in Pyongyang.

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. 

Groom Sip Seung-chul (R) stands with his bride as they prepare to attend a wedding photo shoot on the Taedong river in Pyongyang on November 25, 2016. 

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.

Shopper Han Gwang-Rim (34) poses for a portrait with his daughter Su Ryon (3) at a supermarket in Pyongyang, on June 4, 2017. 
Jo Ye-Song (6) poses for a portrait as she practices rollerblading on Kim Il-Sung sqaure in Pyongyang on June 4, 2017. 

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.

Shooting instructor Kim Su-Ryon poses for a portrait at the Meari Shooting Range in Pyongyang. Kim is holding a 'Paektusan' target pistol, gifted by late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung. Visitors to the range can pay 10 USD to shoot ten rounds on February 21, 2017. 

“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.

Artist Ri Gyong-Ran (Lee Gyung-Lan) poses for a photo at the Mansudae Art Studio where he works in Pyongyang on November 28, 2016. 

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.”

Steel worker Kang Chol-Su (38) poses for a portrait at the Chollima Steel Complex, south of Pyongyang on July 22, 2017. 
Pak Han-Song, 11, poses for a portrait on a beginner's slope at the Masikryong, or Masik Pass, ski resort near Wonsan on February 19, 2017. AFP was told that Pak was a member of a youth ski camp. The Masik resort was opened in 2013. 

“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. 

ed jones/afp/Getty Images
Wait staff Li Jin-Ju (23) poses for a portrait at the Arrirang bar and restaurant in Pyongyang on September 26, 2017. 

“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.”

Swimmer Ri Song-Hui (21) poses for a portrait at the Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang, on July 21, 2017.

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. 

Tour guide Choe Hee-Ok (Choi Hee-Ok) poses for a photo atop the landmark Juche Tower where she works in Pyongyang on November 28, 2016. 

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.” 


lynsey Addario/Getty Images reportage

Lynsey Addario photographs Saudi women who are carefully testing the country’s strict gender boundaries