AP photographer talks importance of Instagram in his coverage of North Korea

Editor-in-Chief

While North Korea is one of the most remote, cut off places on earth, Associate Press photojournalist David Guttenfelder offers a peek behind the curtain through his Instagram feed.

The Associated Press opened a bureau in North Korea in 2012, and Guttenfelder has since traveled to the country about 30 times. He shared his experiences with a packed room at South By Southwest Interactive Sunday.

“Part of the reason there’s so little known about (North Korea) is that there’s so few pictures,” Guttenfelder said. “Until recently there’s been no photographer like me who’s been able to see things for themselves. I’m the only foreign, western photographer with regular access to the country.

He said posting photos of the country on Instagram has become just as essential as his work for the Associated Press.  Nearly 300 Instagram users follow Guttenfelder’s account.

Guttenfelder said using his iPhone allows him to take less formal shots that feel more intimate. He previously took photos on an iTouch until North Korea lifted its cell phone ban in March 2013.

While no one puts their hands in front of Guttenfelder’s camera or sensors his work, he has to work with a “minder” and ask permission to go places in writing. His minder is “part translator, fixer and babysitter.”

“There are some very difficult discussions after the pictures are published,” he said. “We lock horns quite often because they have a very different idea of how North Korea should be covered.”

Guttenfeld has covered everything from the capital city of Pyongyang to rural areas to propaganda events. He has photographed places few outsiders have ever seen or documented. More importantly, Guttenfelder is able to go beyond the scripted events controlled by North Korea.

“They’ve created this idealized vision,” he said. “I have a chance to look into people’s lives and begin to create connections.”

Thanks to Instagram, photographers for the first time are able to receive direct, immediate feedback when they file their photos.  This give validity to the Associated Press’ bureau in Pyongyang, Guttendfelder said.

Kira Pollack, director of photography for TIME magazine, also spoke at the session and echoed Guttenfelder’s sentiments. She said immediacy creates awareness. TIME sent five photographers out to cover Hurricane Sandy with their iPhones. One of the photos that was posted to their Instagram feed ended up on the cover of the magazine.

While covering big news events is obviously important, Guttenfelder’s Instagram popularity has come from his ability to capture the intimate moments of life that may seem mundane to some, but are puzzle pieces of the bigger picture. His most “liked” photo depicts a young girl in Vietnam wearing Harry Potter-esque glasses and a Hello Kitty face mask.

Besides capturing important moments of every day life abroad, Guttenfelder has acted as a sort of modern day explorer when on assignment in North Korea. There were no pre-existing geotags in the country when the ban on cell phones was lifted, so he would check in to different locations on Foursquare and write the name in English. Along with his minder, who wrote the captions in Korean as well, Guttenfelder put flags all over Pyongyang.

Guttenfelder thought Instagram would simply be a place to share photos, but it has become one of the most important ways for him to open a window to the country and remind people that there is something worth exploring and discovering in North Korea.

 “I want to be there as the country changes, and I’m in a position to witness history,” he said. “I’m trying to open a window into this place no one knows about — it’s a dark, black hole.“