Stolen moments in North Korea

North Korean schoolgirls holding brooms pay their respects to late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, seen in a mural, before sweeping the surrounding area on Dec 1 last year in Pyongyang.
North Korean schoolgirls holding brooms pay their respects to late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, seen in a mural, before sweeping the surrounding area on Dec 1 last year in Pyongyang.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS/WONG MAYE-E
A bride and groom posing for a wedding photograph at Moranbong hill in 2014.
A bride and groom posing for a wedding photograph at Moranbong hill in 2014.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS/WONG MAYE-E

Singapore photojournalist Wong Maye-E's first solo show offers glimpses of everyday life there

Every month, Singapore photojournalist Wong Maye-E packs her bags, leaves her family and two children and travels to North Korea.

There, she spends 10 days under the watchful eye of a guide, capturing life in the reclusive state as the Associated Press' lead photographer for the country.

This has been her life for the last two years and she says she is "lucky" to be among the handful of foreign press allowed to give the world a glimpse into the country.

A seasoned photojournalist, she has covered major events such as the 2014 World Cup and intense moments including the political protests in Hong Kong in 2014. Yet the North Korea assignment is perhaps her weightiest to date.

  • VIEW IT / NORTH OF THE DMZ

  • WHERE: Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, 155 Middle Road

    WHEN: Today to Oct 15, noon to 7pm (Tuesday to Saturday), noon to 4pm (Sunday), closed on Monday

    ADMISSION: Free

Wong, 36, says: "It is so rare to be able to experience things there first-hand, to photograph something that is not overdone, so I feel added responsibility to do a good job shooting pictures that are revealing and fair, as any other journalist would if given that opportunity."

Her first solo show features more than 70 photographs of the country and its people, drawn from the body of published work she has built up over the last two years.

It opens today at Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film in Middle Road.

The launch happens as North Korea makes headlines for conducting a nuclear test and reportedly executing officials.

Her pictures, however, offer a view of life in North Korea that is framed not only by news headlines.

The photographs include scenes of official parades and rallies, but also "stolen moments" of everyday life - from commuters riding the trolley and train to a couple taking wedding photos in a park.

"Part of what I shoot is what North Korea wants us to see - the parades and places it wants to showcase, says Wong, who was a former Straits Times photographer.

She adds: "But I also find pictures in the places I pass by, things that are not orchestrated."

The works themselves may raise issues concerning propaganda, photojournalism and perceptions of reality, but when she is behind the lens, she focuses on showing things as they are and as accurately as she can.

An example she cites is being mindful of not referring to the pictures she takes on organised tours as photographs depicting a slice of everyday life.

She also tries to see things with fresh eyes. "I am not there to change the world's perception of North Korea, but there is a side to the country that goes beyond the view of it being grey and the people not smiling much, or at all."

She was forced to confront this herself on her first trip there in 2014. She was out getting fresh air one day when she found herself surprised to come across children roller-blading and having fun in a public square - a sight she had not expected to see in the highly controlled state.

She says: "Everyday moments of people looking tired on the trolley after a day at work, or a mother fussing over her child happen all over the world, but they are often left out when we talk about North Korea."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Stolen moments in North Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe