Four years ago, Eric Lafforgue was a high-flying manager at a leading European provider of mobile content. But when a Japanese takeover resulted in a clean sweep of the company’s executives, he decided – at the age of 42 – to try his hand at photography.
“I took some pictures in Papua New Guinea,” Lafforgue explains during an August 1st, 2010 interview with LiberateLaura, “and very quickly, through the Internet, I sold them to National Geographic. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, maybe this can become a real job.'”
“Today, I work for various magazines and TV channels like the BBC,” he continues. “But without the Internet, there is no way I could have carved out this new occupation. I came along at exactly the right time. I also shoot video now as it pays much more than photos, even though it is definitely not easy to work with both media when traveling.”
Lafforgue gradually became interested in reclusive countries such as Libya, Eritrea and Myanmar, and in 2007, through the auspices of a French travel agency, he took the first of four trips as a tourist to North Korea. Along the way, he says he has experienced a Hermit Kingdom that is very different from the one generally portrayed in western media narratives.
“I’m so bored by the way many journalists still focus only on things like spying and monitoring,” exclaims Lafforgue, who lives with his wife in Toulouse. “Things are changing very quickly in Pyongyang. Reporters who use pictures of empty roads with the caption that there are no cars in Pyongyang are being as silly as North Korean officials putting forth propaganda.”
“My last trip to North Korea was in May, 2010,” he adds. “We were supposed to visit some remote part of the north, but for many reasons, including floods and snow, we were not able to. The local guides were really aggressive about pictures, especially in Chongjin. This was the first time I had to give them my camera.”
“Everything is relatively easy for tourists in North Korea. You just have to pray that no one will type your name on Google!”
In addition to Pyongyang and Chongjin, Lafforgue has visited Kaesong, Nampo, Paektu, Wonsan, Myohyang, Samjiyon, Chongbon and Chilbo. He confirms that outside of the capital city’s boundaries, the landscape of North Korea is one of harsh poverty.
Still, Lafforgue says that for a tourist-photographer, there is one simple rule that needs to be followed: Listen to your guide(s). “If you respect the instructions of the guides, you can take the same kind of pictures as anywhere else,” he reveals. “But like many other countries, you are not allowed to photograph the army or police.”
“At the same time, there is a ‘game’ between you and the guides to break the rules,” he says. “The guides do not like it when you take pictures of poor people. They are very proud of their country and they know these will amount to ‘bad propaganda.’ Taking pictures of the people in the countryside is not so easy, as they are afraid of foreigners. But I also carry a Polaroid camera with me and give them photos as souvenirs, which helps tremendously.”
Somewhat unfairly, I asked Lafforgue to highlight three of his personal favorite North Korean photographs. They are displayed accordingly within the text of this article. The first shows Miss Kim I. Sim, a French-speaking guide at Pyongyang‘s Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum; the second, taken this past May, is of the chief of Jung Pyong Ri village in the North Hamgyong province holding his son’s portrait (though dad was entirely unfamiliar with the Chinese-made frame’s figures of Mickey Mouse and Minnie); the third and final photograph is a sample of the ever-present North Korean propaganda posters.
“I really do not know how long they can go on in North Korea with these messages,” Lafforgue notes. “My guides know that it is different outside, as they have mostly lived in foreign countries in Africa, for example. At the same time, there is a big divide between guides and much of the rest of the population.”
“I was in North Korea as the World Cup was gearing up. In Pyongyang, everyone – from street kids to policemen – knew about players on other teams like Brazil. But in the countryside, no one could name a foreign player.
Another key to Lafforgue‘s success as a Hermit Kingdom photographer is that he draws a big distinction between average citizens and members of the North Korean regime. “I receive so many e-mails from South Koreans who say they have never seen a picture of a North Korean kid smiling for example. I just answer that it is not impossible to find some; you just have to be patient and remember that these children are learning propaganda all day long.”