Groove Magazine Assignment: FreeNK

Controversy. North Korea. Together.

Incredible, I know.

Two things you’d never assume were in bed with one another; controversy and our wild northern neighbor. It’s almost as preposterous as Kim Jong-Il riding an eagle from the peak of Baekdu Mountain to the steps of Castle Grayskull… er, wait. What?

This post isn’t directly related to North Korea or anyone who may or may not reside there, preside there or rule there with an iron fist, so all you watch dogs and folk from the anti-English spectrum can relax. I’m not here to comment on politics, since I’m A: not political, and B: I’m fairly stupid. Don’t send me angry letters (in English or Korean), please.

No, what I’m here to discuss today is the controversy that arose over my own steadfast stubbornness. I’ve clashed with ideologies before; working on film projects with fiery directors and bombastic producers back home often means that heads are going to butt like the billy goats of Austria, concessions are going to be made and compromises are often going to be at the head of the agenda. Obviously, the same can be said for photographic assignments, being the nature of the beast and all. If anything, I’d like this piece to serve to remind me of that in the future because I sure had my blinders on for this one.


Let me preface this by saying that this article is no way an attack on the people I was shooting and working with on this project. It’s simply an exploration of the creative process. I find it interesting and I hope that there are those of you out there who might take something from it. Some of you might think it odd that I’m publishing a story on an experience that was at times frustrating but hey… if I’m anything I’m transparent.

The brief for this piece included a little information on a group called Free North Korea that works under the umbrella of a larger NGO, Justice for North Korea. I was tasked with covering the basics – obviously this is an ongoing initiative and the purpose of the piece is to spread the word. Nothing mind-bending about that, right?


I set to work as I usually do, reading up on the people I’m going to be covering, gathering information and making contacts. My due diligence, if you will. I pride myself on being prepared for an assignment and I approached this like any other I’ve done since I started an ill-fated career in journalism at my university paper in 2002.

Here’s the thing; I couldn’t gather all that much information on the group. Outside of their Facebook page and what they do at their rally in Insadong every Saturday, there’s just not that much literature about Free North Korea floating around. I didn’t have the time (nor the inclination, to be honest. I’m not Steve McCurry and this wasn’t a years-long running editorial) to meet with the group a dozen times so I did the next best thing. I sent them out a stack of feeler questions. I also started firing off ideas for what I thought were creative photographic ideas, but they were met with resistance. Which is cool; not everyone is always going to agree. My original idea had the members of the group wrapped in a flag somewhere on the grounds of Gwanghwamun, the statue of Armiral Yi or Bukhan Mountain in the background. FreeNK didn’t dig it, though; they didn’t want to run anything with the flag, as they believed it would portray them in a political light. They are, of course, focused on the human side of the issue.

I guess I should have listened the first time, but I was stubborn on the flag issue. How does one create a provocative image that resonates with human rights issues in a totalitarian North Korean state without using the flag? I suppose one could use North Koreans, but they are in short supply here in Korea. And, you may be surprised, North Koreans look exactly like South Koreans. See what I’m getting at here?

I tossed out a few more ideas and wracked my brain (didn’t take long) before meeting up with the group at Tapgol Park to shoot. I set up with the stone reliefs as a backdrop – pretty human stuff going on in there, if you ask me, as they depict images of struggle (even if it has to do with the Japanese). I had each member of the group hold up a naked picture frame that was doing a good job standing in for a mirror; the idea was to superimpose a reflection of people, and force people to look within themselves at an image [re: human rights] they might otherwise ignore. Hey, I thought, it’s creative. Maybe.


Then I shot the group photo.

And I got to thinking, which often lands me in trouble. Wait a minute, I thought. What the hell does this evoke? What does any of this evoke? Foreign people in a Seoul park? What does this have to do with my article?


To me, the image with the group in the frame is effective at nothing more than being an image. It’s not communicating anything. That’s cool when you’re doing some other types of photography, but for an editorial piece it’s really not going to fly. And if I want to call myself an Editorial Photojournalist… I better get on the wagon.

I got to thinking of statements and the lack thereof. I went back to my original idea – the flag. The North Korean flag, tattered, ragged and a shambles, representative of the people (I don’t know about you, but when I see the Canadian flag or the US flag I think of the people of those nations). I went back to the FreeNK crew and heard the same response; it’s evocative of politics and not humanity. We want humanity. FreeNK felt that if people simply glanced at the photo without reading the article, they’d get the wrong impression. But an evocative photo is going to get people interested in the article; otherwise it’s all just fluff.


Bah. Politics.

Right. Well, this is where I dug my feet into the sand. I told them that no matter what they believe they are doing, this issue is political, even if their message and their campaign isn’t. Sure, it’s centered on the humanitarian principals, but it’s about freeing people in a non-free state. Seems political to me.


We went back and forth over this issue until they refused to allow the mag to run the image with the flag. I asked them to send me an image – something from their campaign, if they thought it’d be helpful – and I’d put them together.

This is that image.

Flash_29691-3 copy

I certainly see the human aspect here. I get the point of view. What I don’t understand is how this image is one iota less political than the image with the flag. The man is wearing a North Korean uniform, the woman is bound and seated on the ground, a noose around her neck. I suppose I just don’t see how one is [political] and one isn’t. I’m not looking at this in a negative light, either; this is all about communication. I’d love to get your thoughts on this, all you loyal readers out there.

At the end of the day, FreeNK got an image they were happy with, they loved the article and Groove was happy on both fronts. I was left a little disappointed that I didn’t work through the creative differences/points of view beforehand, though happy with the written piece.

While you’re at it, why not share a similar experience, if you’ve had one in the field.


To see the article in print please pick up a copy of the May edition of Groove Magazine

For more information on FreeNK please click here.

– flash


2 thoughts on “Groove Magazine Assignment: FreeNK

  1. Hmm… I’d love to hear a bit more about this over a coffee at some stage…

    Seems that they were expecting more of a shock tactic than you were. Your choice was more overtly political than their choice, which was a little more ‘in your face’. My personal choice would have been your second one… the old Korean flag. This symbolizes a unity and free country more so than the soldier I think.

    In the end though, you did the right thing. Your message still remains in the choice of the background, theirs remains in the foreground, and everyone came out happy. I guess that for the purpose of the assignment, you were just the artist, they were the currators. You win some you lose some.

    Can’t add much, my stuff never gets this political or emotionally rooted…

    Good to see these, man. They’re great shots, regardless.

  2. As simply a reader, an individual interested enough to read an article about the human rights violations in NK and without an artistic atom in my body, I can identify with the photograph of the prisoner more so than the flag. You highlighted the term ‘human’ in the article and the photograph of the prisoner – unidentifiable under the black hood – could be any of my daughters or their friends – so it certainly creates an impact in spite of me sitting safely on a couch on the other side of the planet. Flags seem to represent governments and countries whose direction is (supposedly) determined by it’s people. Influencing the people to influence the governments of the world is the underlying message in this case. If we all behaved as if the imprisoned peoples in NK were our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, would we still be sitting idly by waiting for governments to mete out a solution? In some way a flag represents something that is part of the problem and not the solution. My 2 cents.

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