In Pictures: The Pastel Dreamscapes of North Korea

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North Korea Ted Lau
Courtesy Ted Lau and Daylight Books

In his upcoming book, Between Doors, photographer Ted Lau immaculately captures the hermit kingdom

In Ted Lau’s photographs, you will see tens of thousands of young North Koreans giving the performance of their lives. Some are swinging giant paper pompoms, while others, dressed in neon metallic finery, are waving to an off-camera audience. In one photo, a sea of children hold up individual coloured cards, forming a staggering, stadium-sized portrait of a rainbow. It’s a spectacle that’s typical of North Korea’s Arirang Mass Games – the world’s biggest and most extravagant choreographed event.

The Mass Games are supposed to take place annually at Pyongyang’s Rungrado May Day stadium, but they’ve been irregular over the last few years. In fact, the gymnastic-based event was put on hiatus between 2013 and 2017, reportedly to honour the passing of the country’s former supreme leader, Kim Jong-il. “The Mass Games were one of the things that fascinated me most about North Korea,” says Lau. “And then I found out they were going to hold them again in 2019. I decided I had to go.”

The Hong Kong-born fine art photographer travelled to North Korea in October 2019, weeks before the pandemic tightened its grip on the world. As well as hoping to catch the Mass Games, Lau was also intrigued by the country’s enigmatic reputation – he wanted the chance to see it “as it is now,” with the threats of globalisation, capitalism and nuclear war just specks on the horizon. The trip was documented in his upcoming book Between Doors, published later this year by Daylight.

Lau ended up staying in North Korea for ten days, and was joined by a friend, two tour guides and a driver. “We wanted more freedom, so we arranged a private tour just for the two of us,” the photographer explains. “No other friends wanted to join because they thought it was quite dangerous.” Due to restrictions, all tourists are given tour guides (“they don’t lose sight of you”) and a preset schedule for their trip. They are allowed to carry cameras, but not if they are taking photos of the military, museums or construction sites. They are also forbidden from leaving their hotel unless joined by an official guide – if they do, they are faced with arrest.

Despite the rigid rules, Lau remembers the trip fondly. In his images, we see North Korea through a series of perfectly symmetrical, pastel-coloured dreamscapes. There are shots of eerily quiet streets, looming soviet skyscrapers and silent, saccharine fun fairs – all of which feel like lost scenes from a Wes Anderson movie. Lau even managed to get photos of the military and some Pyongyang construction sites, defying the country’s strict rules around tourist photography.

“I don’t think they are trying to hide much, at least not from tourists,” he says. “But I live in Hong Kong which is right next to China, a communist country, and a common thing about communist countries is that they’re quite insecure about themselves. They essentially want to show that things are not so bad there; that their system works fine.”

Between Doors is published in September by Daylight.