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    War Photographer David Guttenfelder Explains His Award-Winning Photos of North Korea

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Photographer David Guttenfelder has spent years documenting North Korean life in a fashion far more immersive than the usual shots of soldier staredowns at the DMZ and puff photos of Kim Jong-un. They're a surprisingly deep look at life inside the hermit kingdom, and Guttenfelder's body of work has won him the International Center of Photography's 2013 Infinity Award for photojournalism.

    But how does a photographer who spent the early part of his career documenting war on two continents pivot to capturing North Korean life? Thanks to the excellent video above, we can hear Guttenfelder explain things in his own words.

    There's an endless train of thought on photo message boards and whatnot that if only I had the right lens or right camera or whatever, suddenly I'd be taking badass pictures. (I'm guilty of this myself.) What fascinates me about interviews with top photojournalists, like Guttenfelder's, is that at one point, they all just got up and went.

    If you read conflict photographer Robert King's wonderfully candid AMA (and you should), you'd know that being a far-flung photojournalist isn't the ideal path to riches or fame; you can probably rattle off the names of a bunch of print journalists, but how many names of photojournalists do you know? Meanwhile, they're out in the world's most dangerous places documenting the horrors of the world so that we can't shy from them. For all the atrocities out there, imagine what would happen if we weren't faced with them: the popular uproar that can incite good and change would be muted.

    In fact, that's what happened in North Korea for a long time. The country's borders have been more open to photographers in recent years, and you can feel the changes they bring: by seeing North Korean life, it's suddenly made more real, and opening communication and borders is made more urgent.

    Guttenfelder's discussion of his transition from conflict to documenting life at large is fascinating. For all the violence he'd seen through his lens, it appears that documenting the full scope of Korean life—from reunions of families split by the war for brief moments to city life in Pyongyang—had more more impact on him.

    His story of touring North Korea with Madeleine Albright is wonderful, and Guttenberg's notes on the technical challenges of shooting in North Korea add excellent insight. It's interesting just how much leeway he's earned in his years in North Korea. I think it's his discussion of North Korean officials asking him why he takes pictures of things is the best part of the interview, as it lends wonderful insight into the humanizing aspect of photography.