“I’m interested in the dynamics between power and ordinary people,” says Fabian Muir. “Especially in nations and societies that operate outside of Western norms.” Muir has travelled to North Korea on five occasions, each time conducting a photographic survey of everyday life in the country. His work interrogates Western perspectives of North Korea, which are often focused on the stark differences that autocracy bestows on the people living there. “Ordinary people in such countries invariably demonstrate the same positive human traits one can find all over the world,” explains Muir. “I try to bring these out where possible.”
Muir’s winning Portrait of Humanity image was taken in an orphanage in Nampo, a port town on the west coast of North Korea. He notes that when he first entered the orphanage, the children had been running around, playing. “They were given some kind of cue by a teacher to arrange themselves beneath the leaders’ portraits,” he says. “The idea had been for a more posed portrait with the children looking into the lens, but instead I was struck by how each child appeared to be in a world of his or her own.”
Shooting in North Korea proved to be a challenge because, like the portrait he shot in Nampo, many of the scenarios Muir witnessed were pre-planned. Everyone who visits North Korea is assigned two government guides who accompany them the entire time, keeping a schedule and “controlling where you go and what you see,” explains Muir. “It requires a huge adjustment to one’s method.”
The photographer was able to find ways around this: “With time, you learn how and when to quietly push for a little bit extra,” he explains. “And contrary to expectations, the guides were always happy for me to engage with locals.” The outcome is a body of work that draws on the similarities of North Korea and the West, as well as the differences.
“Many photographers are tempted simply to depict North Korea simply as surreal space,” says Muir. “It is equally important also to portray these fundamental, common values, since they reveal something unexpected for anyone who has never visited North Korea. They illustrate how ordinary people will remain resilient and retain their humanity no matter what the system.”