“Kimology”: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

Steve Richmond is a London based photographer, originally from Northern Ireland. You can see the full “Kimology” series on Flickr here.

Great having your Steve. To start off, can you share how your first got interested in photography?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

Hey Eric – I started to take an interest a photography at school in the 1990s.  Back then I didn’t have a lot to take photographs of, so focussed mostly on the technical side of things, especially black and white film photography.  These days I’m mostly interested in taking documentary style pictures.

Tell us more about your “Kimology” project. What first brought you to North Korea, and how did you formulate the idea for the project? What were your experiences shooting in North Korea like?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

The Kimology project is part of a broader interest I have in visiting places that are less well known.  I’m interested in modern history, and North Korea (or the DPRK as they prefer to be known) symbolizes elements of a style of society that was more common in the 1950s.  So, essentially, it’s a country stuck in a time warp.  To me, this seemed like an interesting place to go and photograph.

Nothing in North Korea is really as it seems.  Most images you see of the country have been sanctioned, to some degree, by the authorities there.

Foreigners are escorted everywhere, so you are limited to what you can photograph.  That’s understood before you go.  There is a lot of paranoia, even to the extent that they check the photographs on your camera before you leave.

Even though I was limited in what I could photograph, I still found it an interesting experience.

What are some themes that reoccur in Kimology, and what do you ultimately want your viewers to get from your work?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

When you look a the images, you need to understand that this is what the authorities are ok with you seeing.  That is the theme. Here, to some extent, is the country as presented to you by the Kim family (not yours Eric, the ones in North Korea).

When I went in 2010, Kim Jong-Il was still in charge.  No-one had any idea who his successor would be.  There were a number of situations where what I was seeing was deliberately contrived for visitors like me, but they couldn’t hide everything, like their citizens in the early morning cutting the grass on the edge of a highway with scissors.

We chatted recently and you told me how you used to shoot Kodachrome slides. How has the death of it affected your and your work. Can you also tell us more about when you make the decision to shoot in black and white or color?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

I’ve always shot mostly black and white.  When Kodak & Dwayne’s lab announced the date that processing of Kodachrome was going to stop, I thought it was an opportunity to experience the legacy of this film.  For 3 years I shot most of my colour work in Kodachrome.  It was a difficult film, being rated at 64 ISO, but nevertheless, it was rewarding to take part in this little bit of history.

Today I have a bunch of slides that I keep threatening to show everyone in a 1970s-style slide show.  I just need to get a projector!

How would you describe your style in photography? It seems you do a combination of documentary and street photography.

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

It’s mostly documentary, but I guess, documentary always has elements of street.  Both overlap.  Personally, I find it very difficult to describe my style.  Photography is such a visual thing, you just need to look at my work and figure it out yourself.

Who are some photographers you gain inspiration from?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

There’s a few people that really inspire me. Josef Koudelka, for his work in the Prague Spring (Invasion 86). Gilles Peress for his work during the 1979 Iranian revolution.  Thomas Hoepker for his work in the former East Germany, and finally, a more contemporary photographer, Jason Eskenazi for his work in the former Soviet Union.  I first got his Wonderland book in 2009.  I’ve got two copies, because the first one I got is so well used.

How did you join STROMA, and what do you enjoy about being part of a collective?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

I joined Stroma earlier this year when we launched.  The collective is different as it takes on a range of different styles, not just street photography.  I think that’s something that really motivates us, as it’s an opportunity to learn too.  We’re an international crowd, which work well for getting different perspectives.

Any other projects you are currently working on?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

I have two longer term themes, one is civic society in the UK, and the other is images from less well known places.  I’ve recently finished a project on the “Axis of Evil” which takes in work from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria.

What advice would you give to photographers who are working on projects and trying to find their unique vision in photography?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

My only advice is to follow subjects that interest you outside the context of photography.  Also, looking at photographs is great, but understanding notable photographers is good too.

Not many have biographies, but if you have a chance, read about Robert Capa in “Blood and Champagne” or “Unreasonable Behaviour” by Don McCullen.

Any last words you would like to mention?

1x1.trans Kimology: Exploring the Sanctioned North Korea by Steve Richmond

Thanks for the interview, Eric.  It was great to meet you in London.

The rest of my Kimology series can be seen here.

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  • Simon R.

    Great to see some other photographers images from NK! I have a similar project
    http://petapixel.com/2013/09/02/one-street-photographers-experience-visiting-north-korea/

  • Tobias Weisserth

    It’s because of content like this I keep returning to Eric’s blog. He did so well establishing a hub for people interested in street and documentary photography. Great job Eric. Keep that content coming!

  • twocuteblogs

    Quality work from Steve as always. Maybe his next project could be called Kimology 2 – a project documenting your methods Eric.

  • Tobias Weisserth

    Not knowing if Steve is still reading the comments and open to answering questions, but I am curious about the censorship in North Korea, more specifically how they enforce this with tourists.

    Looking at Steve’s excellent work on Flickr, I noticed that the images were taken on film and then scanned using a Nikon Coolscan scanner, at least it seems this way based on the EXIF data shown and the appearance of the images which don’t look of digital origin.

    Assuming that Steve took the images in North Korea on film, how did the censors and his North Korean “minders” deal with this?

    From other photographers who have been to North Korea multiple times, I know that their minders check their memory cards in their cameras frequently to delete the pictures they don’t like in camera. Another photographer bypassed this censorship by using a camera with dual card slots and each picture being mirrored on the second card, so deleting the master image still preserves the copy on the second card in the camera.

    Maybe Steve can answer how they handled his film camera? Did they insist on processing all film within North Korea and then destroying the negatives they didn’t like?

    Thanks in advance!

    Tobias W.

  • quixotic54

    Hey Tobias – yea, the authorities did attempt to check some of the images people had on their digital cameras. It was a little half-hearted though. We’d all been warned in advance about it, so most folk had a “dummy” memory card which they used, while the one with all the images was tucked away in their luggage.

    For me, they were generally curious – I had 3 film cameras (B&W, Kodachrome and 6×7). They wanted to know why, but didn’t really seem very interested when I told them. They were more interested in what one girl was writing in her diary.

    As for trying to check my photos – no, they weren’t interested. There’s a blind eye turned to a lot of things. We weren’t supposed to photograph anything without permission, but in reality, people just snapped away until we were asked to stop.

  • JH

    Really great work. Nice job.

  • John Craft

    Thank you! Also checkout http://www.99phototricks.com

  • http://stephenbray.me/ Stephen_BRAY

    What a fabulous interview and collection of images. It’s great to find someone with a documentary style that doesn’t attempt to sensationalize the obvious. The images reminded me of the style of magazines of the past like ‘Picture Post’, which isn’t to say they’re not original – I think they’re great. Indeed I wish Leica had lent Steve a Monochrome for a project, rather than Jacob Aue Sobol, because Steve’s style would enable us to better see that camera’s properties, rather than Sobol’s high contrast images.

  • David Sierra

    interesting article with great photos.

  • Paul Holmes

    Nice work. Although censored I feel he has managed to capture something about the ordinary people of North Korea – they’re the same as people all over the world.

  • Philippe Mussler

    Great article as usual…