A young boy sits with a guitar on his lap, staring balefully into the camera. Elsewhere, a woman stands mesmerized by her iPad in a pose echoed by millions around the world. These photographs capture common, everyday scenes – so how did they result in a countrywide ban for the man responsible for snapping them?
That man is Eric Lafforgue. When he was a boy, he dreamed of traveling to faraway lands, and by the time he was ten years old he had already spent time exploring Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti in Africa.
In 2006, though, the French adventurer began taking his camera on his travels. As he visited far-flung locations such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Benin, he captured images of an exotic way of life that is completely alien to most Western audiences.
Soon, world-famous publications such as National Geographic and Lonely Planet were queuing up to feature Lafforgue’s unique photographs. In 2008, for instance, his work depicting life in Papua was featured at the VISA Photojournalism Festival in Perpignan, France.
However, it is for his work in the notoriously secretive state of North Korea that Lafforgue has gained the most publicity. He visited the country six times over the course of eight years – always with his camera in hand.
Lafforgue’s first trip to North Korea was in April 2008. He stayed for two weeks, but his work was hindered at every turn. This would be a common theme throughout all of his subsequent trips too.
After all, North Korea is known for keeping a tight handle on all of its interactions with the outside world. Tourists must be accompanied by official guides at almost all times, for instance, and they are taken around an established and carefully monitored route.
As well as strictly controlling what tourists are allowed to see and do, authorities also place tight restrictions on what visitors are allowed to photograph. Anyone wishing to grab a few candid snaps of North Korean life, for example, must first ask their guide’s permission.
It is believed that these policies exist to avoid the publication of any images that might portray the country in a negative way. But for anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of what North Korea is really like, this attitude poses a big problem.
Lafforgue, then, quickly discovered that his desire to capture photographs of people and buildings in the country was to come under strict supervision. Often, he was asked to delete images that he had captured – although he managed to save them on his memory card.
“They insist that you don’t take photos of anything to do with the military,” he told the Daily Mail. “And anything that could suggest poverty – even when you explain to them that it exists all over the world and even in France.”
And over his six visits to North Korea, Lafforgue saw many different places. Indeed, he took photographs of the capital, Pyongyang, as well as its more impoverished rural areas.
Each time, he was accompanied by a minder who carefully monitored the photographs that he was taking. Many of them were deemed inappropriate and subjected to censorship on the spot.
Among the more obviously taboo subjects that Lafforgue photographed were images of young children hard at work in the fields. But Lafforgue also apparently crossed a line by snapping pictures of ordinary citizens who were not perceived to be wearing smart enough clothing.
Lafforgue was further prohibited from taking photographs of soldiers, particularly when the images seemed to show them in a relaxed or informal light. Once, on a visit to a city where the effects of famine in the 1990s could still be seen, he had his camera confiscated for the duration of the trip.
Often, the officials’ attempts at censorship seemed to stem from a fear of how they would be used to portray North Korea in the Western media. For example, an image of a sleeping man was not allowed in case he was falsely described as being dead, while photographs of apparent volunteers painting milestones were disallowed on the grounds that they could be used to imply forced labor.
For Lafforgue, however, his goal was never to show North Korea in an intentionally negative light. “I take those pictures because there is a real part of the people who are happy and I want to document that. North Koreans are brainwashed, but they live like everybody in the world,” he told Business Insider,
As well as using his memory card to smuggle forbidden images out of the country, Lafforgue also took advantage of the fact that the guides were unable to watch his every move. “It’s impossible for them to monitor everything,” he said. “Especially when traveling with groups.”
Of course, with so few uncensored images making it out of North Korea, Lafforgue’s photographs were an instant hit when he unveiled them to the Western public. But in September 2012, one month after his final trip to the country, he received a letter from the North Korean authorities featuring screenshots of his photographs.
The letter claimed that the photographs depicted North Korea in a less than flattering light, and it stated that he was forbidden to return to the country again. His images, though, provide an all-too rare intimate insight into a hidden world that’s rarely seen by Western eyes.