PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 23: Children gesture and shout at the instruction of a teacher at Gyongsang Kindergarten on August 23, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Inside North Korea: Shooting in a Forbidden Land

Photographing the Communist state is an incredibly rare opportunity. One photographer explains what it's like to capture images in one of the world's most secretive countries.

North Korea has long been one of the most isolated — and secretive — nations in the world. Yet, ironically, it remains at the forefront of international headlines, whether it's speculation over the country's nuclear capabilities or play-by-plays of leader Kim Jong-un's summit with President Trump. This amalgam of elements — an air of mystery combined with a visible standing on the global stage — make North Korea a subject of infinite interest. And while access is highly restricted, Western photographers are, from time to time, allowed within its borders. Earlier this month, Getty Images photographer Carl Court was granted this much-sought-after (and hard to get) access, spending a week in the Communist state documenting people at work and at play.

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 19: North Korean women in traditional dress walk to pay their respects to the Mansudae Grand Monument, huge statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, on August 19, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images GAINING ENTRY Court, who has shot in many far-flung locales over his 15-year career, had long been interested in photographing North Korea, so when the U.K. native relocated to Tokyo — just 800 miles from the capital city of Pyongyang — it seemed an opportune moment to pursue his goal. Of course, it didn't come easy. "I must have sent 50, 60, 70, maybe 80 emails to anyone associated with North Korea — travel agents, photographers, and journalist who had been there," Court tells FOTO. "I was just cold-calling people and generally getting ignored."

He finally lucked upon a travel agent who promised he could make it happen. That is, after Court submitted reams of paperwork and documentation — including photos and serial numbers for his camera equipment, an itinerary of his trip and why he wanted to visit each location, and CV — in addition to paying a fee. Finally, with visa in hand, he flew to North Korea in August. (Pictured: North Korean women in traditional dress walk to pay their respects to the Mansudae Grand Monument, huge statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, on August 19, 2018, in Pyongyang, North Korea.)
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 21: North Koreans read a newspaper displayed at a station on the Pyongyang metro on August 21, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images GETTING AROUND Access for journalists is restricted to pre-approved locations, and Court spent his time in North Korea in the company of two "minders" and a driver. "They stuck by my side literally until I walked through security to board the plane [home] a week later," says Court. The photographer was careful to always be kind and respectful to his minders — his access depended upon it. "I had a long chat with the travel agent and he said the less you mess them about, the less they’ll mess you about." (Pictured: North Koreans read a newspaper displayed at a Pyongyang metro station on August 21.)

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PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 19: North Koreans leave after paying their respects to the Mansudae Grand Monument, huge statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, on August 19, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images RULES AND RESTRICTIONS APPLY In addition to hewing closely to his itinerary, Court had a number of rules to follow while shooting in the country. Perhaps the biggest one? Capturing only full-frame images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il statues and iconography. "You can't crop the feet off the statues. You can't cut a bit of the corner off," explains Court, who knew his minders could check his pictures at any moment. (And that even once he left the country, the shots he posted would likely be monitored.)

If you're wondering why Kim Jong-un's image isn't included in the capital city's Mansudae Grand Monument (pictured), it's because he's alive. "Kim Jong-un, is not depicted anywhere," says Court. "He's considered almost a living deity."
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 23: Children play on rides at Gyongsang Kindergarten on August 23, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 23: Young ballerinas practice during a class at Mansyongdae School Childrens' Palace on August 23, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Carl Court/Getty Images Carl Court/Getty Images
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 21: Pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang on the wall of a train carriage on the Pyongyang metro on August 21, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images A STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND Interestingly, as Court made his way around North Korea shooting both young and old, his presence was often ignored — like during this shoot he did on Pyongyang's metro. "There was no interaction — not verbal, not visual — no one looked at me," he tells FOTO. "It was like I wasn't there. It's very very odd. But I like those pictures — it does sort of show the moodiness and the weirdness." Adding to the moody aesthetic: "It was really dark," Court says of the metro car. "I was pushing my camera to the limits in terms of the exposure." PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 21: Women work in the Kim Jong Suk Silk Factory on August 21, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images HALF THE PICTURE Court had originally hoped to photograph some of the more remote areas along the North Korea-China border, but those locales were not approved for the trip. So the photographer spent the bulk of his time shooting the capital of Pyongyang and a handful of other cities. (His minders also took him to a site a couple hours outside of Pyongyang where all of the Kims' gifts through the years have been stored, but he wasn't allowed to photograph that.) Even with this limited view, Court was able to capture a slice of life in the Communist state. "You can still shoot their version of things and have a pretty interesting set of pictures," says Court. (Pictured: Women work in the Kim Jong Suk Silk Factory in Pyongyang on August 21.) MYOHYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 20: A guide poses for a photograph on the balcony of the International Friendship Exhibition centre on August 20, 2018 in Myohyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images DON'T TALK TO THE LOCALS Ask Court to describe the general mood of North Korea's residents and, well, he struggles. "To go there for a week and gauge the mood of the country is just impossible," he says. "You can go to Ethiopia, you can go to Afghanistan, you can go to Iraq and spend a week traveling around and you'll get a good feeling of the mood in the country, but in North Korea, you can't talk to people." And that's not because of the language barrier — Court was forbidden from talking to citizens. (Pictured: A guide poses on the balcony of the International Friendship Exhibition center in Myohyang on August 20.)
WONSAN, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 22: A woman carries an inflatable ring as she walks on a beach on August 22, 2018 in Wonsan, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 19: North Koreans look on as a man plays an arm wrestling game in an amusement arcade at Kaeson Youth Park on August 19, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Carl Court/Getty Images Carl Court/Getty Images PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 19: A board showing approved hairstyles is displayed at a men's salon in the Munsu Water Park complex on August 19, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images APPROVED HAIRDOS Court captures a poster depicting the approved hairstyles at a men's salon in Pyongyang. (He photographed a similar poster at the women's salon.) WONSAN, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 22: Children sing as they march in formation through Songdowon International School Children's Camp on August 22, 2018 in Wonsan, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images MARCHING ORDERS Children sing in formation through Songdowon International School Children's Camp in Wonsan on August 22. PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 23: Artist Jon Ryong Guk works on a painting in his studio at Mansudae Art Studio on August 23, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images WORKS OF ART Artist Jon Ryong Guk poses with one of his paintings at Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang on August 23. KAESONG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 24: A North Korean soldier stands guard on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area in the demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on August 24, 2018 in Kaesong, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images AT ATTENTION A North Korean soldier stands guard on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on August 24. PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 23: People walk beneath huge pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il displayed from the Parade Reviewing Stand in Kim Il-sung Square, on August 23, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite ongoing international negotiations aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation on earth. Since it's formation in 1948 the country has been led by the Kim dynasty, a three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descended from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung followed by Kim Jong-il and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Although major hostilities ceased with the signing of the Armistice in 1953, the two Koreas have remained technically at war and the demilitarised zone along the border continues to be the most fortified border in the world. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) Carl Court/Getty Images A SMOOTH DEPARTURE After hearing stories of photographers being stopped at security and having their photos searched, Court met with very little trouble upon his departure — a fact he credits to his good relationship with his minders. Court is hoping to return to North Korea in the future, with an eye toward photographing some of the other locales on his wish list. "Obviously there were certain things I wanted to shoot that I wasn't allowed to, but I didn't push it too much [since] it was my first trip," says Court. "I needed to get a little bit of a feel for things."

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