When we think about North Korea, “mundanity” isn’t a concept that typically comes to mind.
We ideate scenes of oppression and social injustice. Our minds fill with imagined horrors built with the brick and mortar of news footage and legacy media. And that makes sense, since atrocity is the thread that weaves together every scrap of the North Korean experience. It’s the cultural tie that binds.
But when photographer Michal Huniewicz illegally documented his time in the country, the resulting collection revealed an image of North Korean life that twists seemingly innocuous imagery into a haunting spectacle of everyday life lived under oppression’s thumb.
We don’t often picture grocery checkout lines, hotel lobbies, and tour buses. We don’t picture life happening in a nation shrouded in mystery and removal.
But it does. Families congregate around TVs playing approved programming. Mothers buy food at the local supermarket. Receptionists check people into their rooms, commuters scramble to catch buses, and pedestrians marvel at skyscrapers. The surface of this way of life is normal. It is ordinary and plain and eerily familiar.
But it’s also performed. That sense of familiarity was entirely orchestrated for Huniewicz’s benefit as a tourist craving an up-close and personal view of a country so few people see from inside.
The facade crumbled as the observant traveler fell into the forced rhythm of his experience. Even his tour guide (pictured above) appeared to have some sort of military standing, as the man was promptly saluted every time someone inspected his papers. Nothing was ever said.
As they drove through Pyongyang, Huniewicz noticed that the city was, in his words, “meant to be a utopian showcase for foreign visitors like ourselves.” Each time the driver felt that the scenery was worth taking in, he slowed down. When he noticed the opposite, he sped up.
They thought they were choreographing the photographer’s every move, but he watched with a careful, critical eye and captured poignant scenes in silence.