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Omid Scheybani
Photography Omid Scheybani

Capturing daily life inside North Korea, on an iPhone

Spending 10-days inside the DPRK, this photographer used his smartphone to shoot the highs and lows of life inside the mysterious country

Allowing us a rare insight into the daily lives of North Koreans, photographer Omid Scheybani shares these snapshots from a 10-day trip inside the DPRK. With much of the country shrouded in negative press and mystery, the German-born lensman shot his time there entirely on his iPhone. Recounting his time there for EyeEm he said, “the iPhone allowed me to do a lot of things that would not have been possible with a larger camera. Pull it out, take a few shots, and put it back into your pocket... The iPhone gives me a lot of flexibility. Furthermore, I’m rather sorry than safe… certainly a risky attitude in the DPRK, but that’s just me as a photographer.”

Amongst photos of an English class, ice skaters and local kids playing basketball, Scheybani provides a look into the lives of those living outside of Pyongyang, a part of North Korea described by the photographer as a place where "The government decides who gets to live there and it makes sure the most loyal and citizens do...Outside of Pyongyang, one could see much more despair and sadness in people’s faces”. Although admittedly leaving with many questions unanswered, he is quick to assert that a lot of the negativity surrounding our ideas of life inside the DPRK comes down to fear mongering, recounting touching moments with the government minders who chaperoned them, as well as locals. Below we caught up with him and asked him to fill in the blanks.

What do you think the biggest misconception of North Korea is?

Omid Scheybani: I always like to share how my perception and relationship with the minders changed over time. We had two minders – government officials who accompanied us to control the experience. Before the trip, when I learned about their presence, I thought that there would be no way that I would interact or even talk with them. But by the end of the trip, as we were bidding farewell at the airport, we were giving each other really heartfelt hugs and encouraging words of farewell. I realised that no matter how different our ideologies or understanding of the world, at the end of the day, we are still able to sit next to each other, exchange family pictures, talk about our dreams and connect over our humanness.

“I realised that no matter how different our ideologies or understanding of the world, at the end of the day, we are still able to sit next to each other, exchange family pictures, talk about our dreams and connect over our humanness” – Omid Scheybani

You shared your trip with both EyeEm and Medium in detail, but was there a particular moment that stood out for you in North Korea?

Omid Scheybani: I remember sitting with a few college students at lunch, speaking English. I asked them about the reunification with South Korea (because it's something that was mentioned quite frequently to my surprise). There is even a big monument in Pyongyang which symbolises the reunification. So I asked him about the reunification and he expressed that it would happen sooner or latter. Upon asking him who would then be the new president, he surprised me when he said that the new president would be elected. "Elected?!" I responded with astonishment, "so who is going to be elected and why?," I asked. The student responded with an unforgivable level of confidence "Kim Il-Sung will be elected ... because the South admires our leader." This was the perfect moment when I realised that their narrative of the world is simply a different one.

There's still such a huge amount of mystery surrounding North Korea, do you feel we will ever get closer to knowing more about it?

Omid Scheybani: Hard to tell. My friend Nick who had been there more than 25 times said that he is still learning something every single time that he goes. We were told that if we leave with more questions than that we arrived with, everything would have gone well. Some of my questions were answered, but I had so many more when I left. And I can see how some those new ones might be answered on a second trip, but how I would still leave each future trip with more and more questions.

There’s often talk about the 'odd rules' the government impose on tourists, are they as strict as these reports often imply?

Omid Scheybani: There were a few odd rules for sure. No cropped pictures of the great leader (the full body had to be captured) and we were never allowed to leave the hotel by ourselves. But here is what happens – if you travel to such places with a lot of cultural ignorance and then judge everything through your Western lens, then yeah, everything seems so odd suddenly. But if you try to put yourself in their shoes, show some empathy, and try to meet them on eye-level – then the rules start to make sense. If you were them, you would believe/act/request the same. That's why it's so important to travel with real genuine empathy and curiosity.

Did you gauge a sense of how they saw the world outside of North Korea?

Omid Scheybani: Very much all major news that enters the country are filtered by the government. They come in selected, censored, manipulated and delayed. The official minders didn't know about ISIS, but they knew about 9/11. It's hard for me to extrapolate this small sample size on the population, especially because there is now a growing black market of media circulating in the country (think of movies, soap operas, music, news, books and even porn). And as you can imagine, those black market activities are extremely dangerous for those involved, so clearly we had no insight into that. But as you can see in one of my pictures at the subway station, newspaper pages were displayed publicly and the narrative was always aligned with the ideology (we had access to some translations in English).

What advice do you have for someone travelling there?

Omid Scheybani: As long as you don't do or bring anything stupid, you will be fine. Half of our group consisted of Americans. We had Jews, Christians and Muslims on the trip. Men, women, and members of the LGBT. As someone who has traveled to Cuba, Iran and North Korea, I can tell you that most of what you think about those countries is media-imposed fear mongering.