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North Korea’s Incredible Mass Games

Just a little over a week ago, in mid-September, Sam Gellman took a trip to North Korea to see a country he’d always been curious about. “Part of the way I think about picture-taking is that if I go to the most interesting/off-the-beaten-path destinations, interesting images will follow. North Korea seemed like one of those places,” he tells us. “Similar to Myanmar, going to North Korea was like going back in time in many ways, which is always interesting for a photographer. The world is changing quickly so you never know how some of these countries will look five years down the road. It was important to me to make it to North Korea to see it as it currently is.”

One of the events he was able to witness first-hand was the incredible Mass Games. Since 1946, North Korea has regularly staged mass performances that have grown ever grander and more lavish over the years. Held this year in Pyongyang between August 1 and October 10, 2011, the shows are put on four times a week. They are the result of long hours and months of rigorous training by thousands of people. Make that 100,000 people.

“The Mass Games is a gymnastics form which is all about the group, and largely represents North Korea’s emphasis on the group rather than the individual,” Gellman says. “They succeed in making it very synchronized. From as young as five-years-old, citizens are selected to be in the performance and, in many cases, it is a way of life for them until retirement. It is a show with a lot of symbolism, largely praising the Party, the army, and the leaders.

“One of the more amazing aspects is the background. It’s a constantly changing image comprised of about 30,000 flip cards, which are being flipped by kids. During the few minutes before, the kids practice and all cheer into the flipping of their card. Their cheering combined with the noise from the cards creates a pretty powerful atmosphere in the stadium.”

What can a photographer expect when he or she is shooting in North Korea? Gellman lets us in on that answer.

“It is a very difficult place to take pictures. It’s hard to spend time thinking about shots. You can’t walk around the streets early in the morning like I normally like to when I take pictures on the road. You end up taking pictures of places that seem interesting and hoping you’ll have enough detail and clarity to crop them into good, final images.

“That said, over time, I grew much more comfortable taking pictures. The citizens are very willing to have their pictures taken and show no resistance at all in almost any cases. Some of the people are surprised that I wanted to take their pictures. Eventually, our guides grew a bit more comfortable as well. And, there were places, such as the City Carnival and the Mass Games, where our guides encouraged us to take as many pictures as we wanted.

“I think the state is worried that foreigners will take back pictures that make their country look poor and filled with problems. I really use my photography to show countries and places in the best possible light. I wanted to do the same with North Korea and, in the end, I think the images I have posted tend to do that.”

Sam Gellman’s website and Flickr page

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