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Interview: Wong Maye-E

We pick the brain of Wong Maye-E, a photographer who has been chronicling life in North Korea since 2014

Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP Photo
Parade in Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of the north’s ruling party

What was the last thing you did? Play Pokémon Go, watch a movie, roll your eyes at a Facebook post? Life’s different for Wong Maye-E. The Associated Press photographer recently completed a two-year-long project to capture slices of life in North Korea. The photos are on show in North of the DMZ, but before you head down to the exhibition, we pick Wong’s brains on her first solo show.

We hear you were shadowed by a minder in North Korea. What was that like?

My team and I did have a government guide accompany us. Initially, it hindered my creativity. But once our guides understood that we were trying to show the similarities, on a basic level, between the lives of North Koreans and that of foreigners, I got to decide what moments to capture.


A north Korean traffic police woman as after-work rush hour begins. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP Photo

'[North Koreans] wonder at my fascination with the mundane things they’re doing'

What was one of the first things that struck you when you first arrived in North Korea in 2013?

The first thing I noticed when I travelled to the outskirts of Pyongyang was how fresh the air was – it felt like I was in a Chinese watercolour painting. The scenery was unexpectedly lush and untouched, unlike what I’d heard about North Korea. 

How did North Koreans react to your camera?

North Koreans aren’t used to being candidly photographed. They wonder at my fascination with the mundane things they’re doing. If I were to take photos of a man fishing by the river, he wouldn’t understand my interest in his pastime. But I’m really just trying to capture these moments of everyday life that audiences in the outside world can relate to.

Schoolgirls bow to pay respect to the late Kim Il Sung, before sweeping the area. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP Photo

You regularly photograph regional news stories, politics and the like. Who, or what, are your inspirations?

As a female photojournalist, I’m inspired by the works of Lauren Greenfield, who covered issues dealing with youth and girls. Through the time spent with her subjects, she earned their trust, and that contributed to her storytelling.

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