Interview: Steve Gong on North Korea

Editor’s note: Steve Gong has been on our radar since the release of his amazing video of North Korea: Pyongyang Style. Secretly filmed while touring the country, it went viral on the net and for good reason, namely giving some insight into North Korea life. Aside from his video work, Steve is an accomplished photographer with a knack for portraits, who also attended my alma matter of UVa in Charlottesville, where he captured the several local traditions. He goes into great detail in this interview, and sheds some fascinating light on his North Korean video. Read on…

Steve Gong

Name: Steve Gong

Hometown: My parents are Chinese and I grew up in Italy, but the only place I really feel at home is NYC.

How did you get started in photography?

The photographer Steve McCurry (who’s famous photo of the Afghan Girl belongs on the National Geographic June 1985 cover) came to UVa as a guest speaker.  At the time I had just purchased my first digital SLR, and his photos had captivated my imagination unlike any other photographer.  I decided that I was going to meet him that day.  Before the talk started, I went to the back and introduced myself.  I then asked him to sign my camera with this red paint pen.  From that point on, every time I looked at the signature, I had this incredible desire to go out and take pictures.  It planted the seed for what later became a major direction change in my life.

At UVa, I was a biology and psychology major.  They’re two disciplines have provided, and continues to provide to this day, the backbone of how I think and process information.  I see everything in terms of a science – how it all works; and go about decision making using common sense.  When you think about it that way, photography isn’t really that different than biology, or finance, or anything else.  I don’t think I would have taken an interest in so many things, including photography, had I attended a university that doesn’t encourage branching out and pursuing anything that strikes your fancy.

Charlottesville too, provided a springboard for my photographic endeavors.  Despite being such a small city, it attracts artists from all over.  Being so close to DC, many National Geographic photographers reside there, and as a result I got to meet a lot of them.  That made my goal of becoming a traveling photojournalist seem a lot more attainable.

Yuki Namata © Steve Gong

Favorite camera and lens? Why?

Every camera I’ve used have had shortcomings in some way or another.  I used the Canon 5D mark II for this project because of its superior video.  I can’t say it’s the fastest or most responsive camera when it comes to stills, though so I ended up selling it once the project was over.  I suppose one camera I’ve stuck with for a while is the Nikon D700.  I used to love my 17-35mm f/2.8, but I’m tired of having to lug it around.  I now mostly shoot with primes.

If you could shoot anyone/anywhere/anything, what would it be?

I’d really love to do a photoshoot with the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble (specifically the lead female vocalist Ri Kwang Suk), whose music was featured in my video.  It’s one thing to sneak candid footage out of a secretive country, but to actually interact with, and explicitly put on a staged photoshoot with a group of musicians so famous in their own country, yet so foreign to the rest of the world is just something else.

What’s your shooting style? Photographic influence?

As I’d mentioned, Steve McCurry ignited my enthusiasm for photography, but I quickly discovered and met many other great photographers.  I enjoy works that reflect human nature or says something about society – works that have a conceptual underpinning that at the same time doesn’t explicitly preach.

Although photography is often used as a medium to convey pure aesthetics, I’ve found myself caring less and less about taking such pictures.

Dubai © Steve Gong

What is the best thing about photography? Worst?

Although I’ve greatly enjoyed photography over the years, I’ve never been more clear now as to its limitations.  Photography’s strength lies within the fact that it’s a single frame.  It can be a very concise way of delivering a punchy message.  A still picture can capture one’s attention with a single glance.  However, this is also its greatest weakness.  Because there isn’t a timeline, or a possibility to say exactly what you mean (with language for example), it’s difficult to craft a pinpointed viewing experience.  Photos are way too open for interpretation, and each person takes away what they want.  You can’t convey much beyond the superficial.  This is why I’ve been increasingly drawn to mediums with a timeline, such as audio/radio and video.  My video would have never become popular had it been just a set of still photographs.

What’s your most memorable shooting gig?

In terms of staged portraits it would have to be that shoot with violinist Yuki Numata on the Brooklyn Bridge.  More than the photograph itself, it was the moment and experience that trumps the resulting image.  I had developed this love for New York, and decided we’d do a shoot on the bridge.  I had her play intense pieces like Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major.  We soon drew a crowd, and a storm came gradually rolling in, providing the backdrop behind the evening manhattan skyline.

North Korea Questions

Editor’s note: Before reading this part of the interview, please watch this video filmed and edited by Steve. Also check out Steve’s galleries about North Korean Women, Airang Mass Games, and the Pyongyang Underground

Pyongyang Style from Steve Gong on Vimeo.

How did you come up with the idea for this project?

I think because I was in such a state of excitement for the entirety of my first trip to North Korea, I didn’t do a lot of thinking as to what material I should capture.  I was also for the most part dissatisfied with all the still images I had, and wanted to go back and shoot video to better capture the essence of the place.  Then, about this time last year, I got a call from One Day On Earth, a global film project that was looking for filmmakers to participate.  They asked me if I wanted to go again, and I was like, “hell yeah.”

Were you ever questioned about your shooting in N. Korea?

It was definitely tense this time round.  Although I didn’t technically film anything I wasn’t supposed to film, I think they were a little suspicious.  The girl who appears in my video singing on the bus was supposed to be an intern, but really, she was a minder working for the government.  Ultimately I stuck out in the tour group because I was the only young person – most Chinese people who visit North Korea are middle aged, or old people who’d fought in the Korean War.  Anyway, the girl pretty much was next to me all the time that I had to force myself to count to a certain number while recording to avoid the temptation of shutting off my camera too early.

Did nobody ever notice the black tape on your LCD?

The minder definitely did, but I told her it was to protect the screen at the back.  The tape’s there because there’s no way to actually shut off the screen while you’re shooting video.

How did you go about setting up the haircut?

I basically just walked into the hair salon, and she was the only one there.  She was so friendly, and having realized that we had no languages in common, I knew this would make for some interesting footage.

Did the hairdresser ever question why you kept moving the camera? (there are some very close-up shots of her)

She was actually completely aware I was filming and that made for some amusing footage that didn’t quite make it to the final cut.  The 5DII shuts off about every 12 minutes, and you have to switch the camera back on and hit record every time it does this.  The first time I leaned forward to fix it, all the hair fell onto my seat.  The subsequent times that the camera had to be reset, the hairdresser did it for me – she was a fast learner and I think she enjoyed being on film.

Some people have said you simply created a piece of propaganda. How do you respond to that?

I filmed what I saw and experienced, and I didn’t want to give any opinions or draw any conclusions, because like with anything, the situation in North Korea is multi-faceted.  My goal was to make a piece that was entertaining and thought provoking, and introduce Hye-sun (the hairdresser) to the world.  I’m under no delusions that most of North Korea does not look like Pyongyang, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all fake propaganda.  It’s still North Korea, just perhaps the best of North Korea.

South Koreans surprisingly know very little about North Korea, and I’m overjoyed that this video has been a big hit there, as it’s caused a lot of people to realize that North Korea isn’t just a faceless enemy with an oppressive regime, but just a case of an arbitrary political divide of people who are otherwise pretty much the same in every way.

What was the best and worst part about visiting N. Korea?

Food poisoning.  Things acted up while I was on the tour bus somewhere in the countryside just outside of Pyongyang.  It was so bad that they had to pull over for me, but it turned out to be a real jackpot.  I walked into the rice fields, and stumbled upon a folded up piece of newspaper.  (As a foreigner you’re not allowed to purchase or keep non English versions of their newspapers.)  I picked it up and put it in my pocket, and then smuggled it out of the country.

Did you learn any lesson or take away any valuable insight from your visit there?

Talking with the people there, it’s fairly clear to me that they know what’s up with their regime and make a good effort to dissociate truth from propaganda.

Take a look at more of Steve’s work, and as always, click through to see more: 

Beefly © Steve Gong

Christina Gelsone © Steve Gong

Miss Banbury © Steve Gong

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