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If nuclear concerns haven't pushed North Korea back to the front of American consciousness, Dennis Rodman's recent visit has. It's a reminder of just how rare an opportunity it is to meet with the North Korean leader; NPR's news blog says Rodman is "the only American to have met and talked with Kim [Jong Un]."
Just setting foot in North Korea is a feat. But as chief Asia photographer for the AP wire service, photographer David Guttenfelder (who snapped this photo of Rodman at an airport) goes every few weeks. And in recent months, he has made a few dents in Korea's historically iron wall by posting photos — in real time — to Instagram. But back in 2000, when he went for the first time, mobile phones were not allowed at all.
"Not only could I not bring a phone but I was told not to take pictures from a moving bus," he says via Skype from Tokyo, where he's based. "They put sheets over the windows of my hotel room so I couldn't see outside. I had this strange feeling that nothing was real."
A lot has changed since then. "Fast forward to February," Guttenfelder says, "and suddenly I'm standing in Pyongyang and can send [photos] straight to Instagram or ... straight to the office."
For whatever reason, North Korea has recently allowed certain foreigners and reporters to bring in not only mobile phones, but also phones equipped with 3G — which means instant connectivity. This is a big deal for people like Guttenfelder who, until now, could only connect to the outside world via WiFi in hotel rooms.
In January, he was allowed to bring an iPod touch. Using that camera, and his hotel WiFi, he began filing photos to Instagram. Just before leaving in late February, the lift on the 3G ban meant he could send a photo directly from the back of a bus. He has been back in Japan for about a week and retroactively posting more lonely, wintry photos, in preparation for another upcoming trip to North Korea.
Within the scope of American culture, in which immediacy is both expected and demanded, it's hard to overemphasize just how incredible it is to see North Korea through Guttenfelder's eyes, in real time. As basically the only Western photographer there, Guttenfelder says, "it's a big responsibility" and is careful to qualify his appreciation for 3G:
"All that said: Koreans don't have access to this. It's just for foreigners. Very few North Koreans ... [have] access to Internet at all. And this mobile Internet is completely off-limits. So this is a small crack in the window for we foreigners who go there. ..."
"The most important thing is that my whole point of photographing in North Korea has been to open a window into a place that's otherwise totally isolated," he continues, "and through my pictures reveal something about this really otherwise unknown place. And this is just an amazing new tool."
The access might be a breakthrough, but it is still incredibly limited. Guttenfelder still can't go everywhere he'd like, or photograph whatever he pleases. Especially on Instagram, he sticks to the safe subject of daily life: street scenes, restaurants, people waiting for the bus. It's not breaking news, but he thinks it's important. "You'll see that from the outside and say, 'Oh, I do that, too,' " he says, "and that's a connection."
In addition to his iPhone, Guttenfelder carries a digital SLR for the photos he files with the AP — and goes the completely opposite direction for his personal work, shooting film with a Hasselblad panoramic camera. The Huffington Post featured some of those photos in December.
You can follow Guttenfelder's upcoming trip on Instagram, @dguttenfelder. It should be interesting to see how North Korea thaws in the spring.