Eric Lafforgue

Banned Photos Smuggled Out of North Korea

By: | Published: Apr 18, 2022

North Korea is one of the most notorious (and secretive) countries on earth. You don’t just waltz in for a vacation. Instead, you join a government tour group, adhere to strict policies, and follow a pre-approved path. You are never far from a tour operator who tells you what to look at and where to go.

With restrictions like that, it’s rare to see candid pics of everyday life. However, some travelers (such as French photographer Eric Lafforgue) manage to do the impossible. The risks are high, though, and it’s never easy. For Lafforgue’s “transgressions” – aka, taking photos of everyday scenes – he was banned from North Korea for life. Below are some of his “illegal” photos.

Power Outage 

When Lafforgue was setting up to take his picture, the power went out. He took the picture anyway. However, that didn’t make him any friends. The tour guide told him that the American embargo caused the electricity to go out.

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Eric Lafforgue

Whether that’s true or not, it’s a sign that not everything is bright and shiny in North Korea. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, it’s believed that only a quarter or so of the population has access to electricity. Often, for only a few hours a day.

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Rural Children in Poverty

Plenty of countries are plagued with rural poverty. Often, this means kids have to start working at a young age to bring in the food, money, and water needed to survive. This situation isn’t confined to North Korea.

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Eric Lafforgue

However, North Korean officials don’t want outsiders to know the extent of its rural poverty. So, instead of allowing tourists to take photos of everyday realities, they ban the taking of such photos. That, unfortunately, doesn’t fix the reality of hard living in the countryside.

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Smiling Beneath Kim Family Portraits

There is a huge cult of personality that surrounds the Kim family in North Korea. Images of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un are given deep respect. This means there are a strict set of rules for how to show them in pictures.

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Eric Lafforgue

High up on that rule list is to never take a picture of the Kim family portraits when people are “doing silly things” nearby. For the picture above, that means children putting on goofy faces for the camera.

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Riding Bikes to Work

The picture that the North Korean government wants to portray of their country is usually very different from the country itself. Rather than a shining beacon of hope and progress, most people (especially in rural areas) live a hard life.

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Eric Lafforgue

Transportation services aren’t the greatest, so a lot of people rely on bicycles to get to work. Often, this involves riding for a few hours each day just to make it to the fields – and then working. Unsurprisingly, the government doesn’t want foreign travelers taking photos of that reality.

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Taking Pictures of Unfinished Paintings

Whereas some of the above photos are a bit sad, the one below is a bit odd. Rather than getting in trouble for snapping photos of rural poverty or power outages, the photographer below got in trouble for showing a painting that wasn’t complete.

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Eric Lafforgue

We imagine Lafforgue was probably a bit taken aback when he was told this. Regardless, that’s the rule. No taking photos of paintings that aren’t complete. The government tour operators only want to show finished products.

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Old Buildings Are Not Allowed

Although there are some impressive and modern buildings in the capital of Pyongyang, that level of architecture doesn’t extend to every other city and county in North Korea. In many places, the buildings are out of date and in need of repair.

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Eric Lafforgue

For example, take the above building. Although plenty of other countries have buildings like this and are fine with people photographing them, North Korea is different. The higher-ups don’t want anything but new buildings to be shown to the outside world.

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No Army Photos

North Korea is big on the military. Alongside its “military-first” policy for the economy, it has one of the largest militaries in the world! Nearly 5% of its population is on active duty. For a traveler to North Korea, that means you’re bound to see a lot of uniformed soldiers.

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Eric Lafforgue

Although soldiers are everywhere, it’s a big no-no to take any photos of them. This is one of the strictest rules governing travel in North Korea. However, some photographers may sneak out a few photos, such as the one you see here.

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The Tunnel

North Korea has been ready for battle for decades. Alongside having one of the largest militaries on earth, a military-first policy, and a nuclear weapons program, the country also has plenty of protective measures in place. For example, bomb shelters.

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Eric Lafforgue

In the capital of Pyongyang, the subway system is the deepest in the world. The reason it’s the deepest is that it’s also a bomb shelter in case anything should happen. Unsurprisingly, foreign travelers are not supposed to take photos of the tunnel.

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Photos of Malnutrition

Unfortunately, malnutrition is all-too-common in North Korea. The reasons range from poor management, to natural disasters (droughts and famines), to sanctions imposed by other countries. The result is that a lot of people don’t have enough to eat.

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Eric Lafforgue

The government, as with many other matters, isn’t exactly upfront with this. Instead, they’d rather project the image of a happy and healthy nation. To do that, they ban traveling photographers from taking photos of malnourished people. However, it doesn’t always work as you can see from above.

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Long Queues

As we saw from the picture of workers cycling for many hours a day just to get to work, the transportation system in North Korea isn’t up to date. The line of people queuing for a bus below confirms that.

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Eric Lafforgue

Despite the massive new road, it looks like buses are rare and private vehicles are almost non-existent. So instead, people wait in a very organized line to hop on one of the few buses to get to work. It’s certainly not the simplest and most convenient way to travel around a city.

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