Part-Olympic Opening Ceremony and part-a show of the regimes force, this photographer captured a moment in history that truly feels like a scene from another reality
The strangest show on earth and like something you've never seen before, the games in North Korea's capital Pyongyang are a homogenization of patriotic choreographed dance moves, national obedience, and military might. Dan Medhurst went to arguably the world's most mysterious country to document the Mass Games where thousands of identically dressed people rocked the stadium with a performance resembling a dystopian fiction.
After nearly a decade of discussing a potential trip to North Korea, Dan finally decided to travel to the communist state last year after seeing the Mass Games were being held for the first time since 2014. The games also marked the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding, so the occasion was an even grander spectacle than usual. What Dan captured is truly hypnotic and oddly satisfying, it pulls you in like a mesmerizing cinematic story through the order of synchronized splits and almost robotic-like movements. After returning safely, we caught up with Dan to find out more about the games, the deserted streets of Pyongyang, and life as a photographer.
Dan tells us he has been a professional photographer since 2007, but it's a position that has been passed down the ages through his family. His father was a press photographer all his life and his stepfather was passionate about it too-giving Dan his first 35mm SLR which he still uses to this day. His teenage years were manic, he was hyperactive and wanted to do as much as possible, but his family encouraged him to pursue photography.
His first commission came when he was still a university student. Topshop asked him to photograph their new winter range-he told us he didn't really know what he was doing at the time but winged it regardless. But this moment made him think seriously about photography. From this point on he kept on pushing himself into new waters like fashion and music photography, experimental projects for charities, and overseas to places like North Korea, Peru, and Morocco.
Now an established and celebrated photographer, his work has pulled him in multiple directions. From shooting Adwoa Aboah for H&M, Peggy Gou for Mixmag, and going to Ethiopia for an Oxfam assignment, Dan is a versatile creative that can be dropped in most environments and master that situation. He is also one of the most charismatic people in the industry, his sheer kindness will win you over, which then creates a dazzling rapport with his subjects that is evident in the shoot.
Before jumping into our questions, we ask him how he would describe his style to others. He tells us because he shoots lots of disciplines within photography, it is difficult for him to nail his aesthetic down to one style. Spanning over everything from fashion to live music, sports to documentary-style, he says 'lifestyle' is what prevails throughout his work, but he tries to make it feel rich and elevated from the norm. "My style has changed a lot as I’ve grown and I find myself still experimenting with new lighting techniques regularly that brings new dimensions to my images. Hopefully, my style is ever evolving," he explains. North Korea was a new experiment for him, so we begin by asking him about this unique experience.
North Korea: What made you travel there and how did it come about?
My friend Tristan Kennedy and I had been talking about traveling there for about eight years, one thing or another got in the way each time we made a loose plan so it didn’t end up happening. Primarily it’s very expensive to get there and you also need a guide to take you around. Last year I read that they were holding the North Korean Mass Games (a kind of Olympic Opening Ceremony with dancers, musicians, and gymnasts performing in a giant propaganda show of national pride and military strength) for the first time in several years and I thought it’s now or never, so persuaded Tristan to come with me.
Your images from the North Korea Mass Games are mesmerizing. Have you ever experienced anything like that before?
I’ve never seen anything quite like it and it was on our first evening in the country, so it was quite a surreal introduction. It’s both bizarre and really impressive. The three North Korean leaders (Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, and his grandson and current leader Kim Jong-un) are worshiped like religious deities which to us is obviously very different, given what we know about the human rights abuse and totalitarian oppression of the North Korean people.
What did you make of Pyongyang and the North Korean people?
Pyongyang is a surprisingly beautiful city which I wasn’t expecting from everything I had read about it before traveling there. It has a sort of faded beauty but everything is very well kept and looked after. It’s like nowhere else I’ve ever been before in many different ways. They have their version of communism which obviously means there is no free market trade and as such the streets are only really busy early morning and evening as people go to and from work. The rest of the time the city feels a bit like a ghost town.
I didn’t get to have too many meaningful interactions with people on the streets as a lot of people avert their gaze when you make eye contact. Generally, I think they keep themselves to themselves and try to avoid you. Or at least they saw me and thought I was someone to be avoided. We did have three North Korean guides (you can’t travel anywhere outside of your hotel without them), who were all very friendly in a sort of school teacher kind of way. At times I felt like I got to know them a little, but the society is such that every conversation eventually comes to a brick wall and you can’t really get to know anyone properly.
I felt sorry for a lot of the people I saw though, particularly those outside of Pyongyang. They have very tough lives and their families have been without basic freedoms for several generations. You don’t realize how lucky you are to have freedom of speech or freedom of movement until it’s taken away from you.
Did your views of the country and dictatorship change after returning…
I think things are a lot better in North Korea than they have been in previous decades (at least for the people we were allowed to see in showcase city of Pyongyang). The overall standard of living appeared to be better than I had anticipated. The famine of the 1990s (euphemistically named locally as 'The Arduous March') thankfully no longer seems to be a catastrophic crisis, although everyone I saw was very thin. The people of Pyongyang were smartly dressed in more 'modern style' clothing that has been brought over from China. Some people also had mobile phones, which I didn’t expect. Although I was told they’re blocked from making calls outside of North Korea.
We were constantly bombarded with propaganda about the leaders, much of which we know is not true, but while there we politely nodded so as not to cause any offense to our guides. I didn’t see anything in the country to make me change my views on what I had already read about the regime.
The one thing I was really impressed by was the caliber of artisan they have there. Some truly brilliant artists! Whilst somewhat crazy, the propaganda paintings were amazing and there was also incredible mosaic work and sculptures that were also really very impressive.
2018 was a big year for North Korea and South Korea relationships. Were there any signs of that during your visit?
Yes, our guides told us of their dream of a reunited Korea and spoke about it regularly on the trip. When we were at the Mass Games, part of the performance showed the two countries leaders' historic meeting at the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone), with words in English (and also in Chinese) on display like “Friendship, Multilateral Relations, and Peace,” further expressing their wish for reunification.
On a practical level, I don’t know how it would ever work though. I can’t see a country stuck in a 1950-60s timewarp adjusting to the ways of hyper-modern South Korea. I couldn’t see how their vastly different economies would merge together without extensively damaging the economy of the South. Also on a practical level, how can you have a communist country, where people are so closely watched and monitored by their government, living and working alongside a capitalist society with freedom and democracy? I can’t see how that would ever work.
What’s next after North Korea…
I’m heading to Peru in the next month or two to work on another commercial project for Lexus, but as for forthcoming documentary series, nothing is set in stone at this stage but I’d love to go back to Africa to work on some more projects there. I’d also like to go back to North Korea at some point. It’s a really fascinating place.
You’ve photographed Midland, Peggy Gou, and Bonobo in recent years. What makes these style of portraits interesting to you?
I love music and it’s always exciting to collaborate with creative people. I often get to have more creative license with this type of project and create a mood that represents the artist or their music.
Music and fashion are pretty consistent in your work. Are these the areas you enjoy working in most?
I definitely love both these areas. I’ve been a big record collector since I was in my late teens so collaborating with some incredible musicians whose music I’ve been a fan of before meeting them has been a real buzz. Fashion is another form of visual art and I love the theatrical, and almost ethereal, otherworldly nature of this style of image-making. These images don’t have to be so squarely rooted in reality so there’s scope for creating something with more artistic freedom that I could if I was shooting a documentary for example.
Do you have a personal all-time favorite shoot?
Hmmm, there is a lot to choose from. I love it when I get to travel to interesting places and experience new cultures. I love to meet new people and have that connection with them. Equally the big advert and commercial shoots I’ve worked on bring a different experience to taking pictures and are enjoyable in a different way. Often more stressful initially but the satisfaction of delivering to a brief and working with a big team is really rewarding. I’ve been fortunate to have been commissioned on some amazing projects with some talented people.
I shot a project in Ethiopia for Oxfam in 2017 to illustrate the positive impact their fundraising has brought to remote communities (with well drilling, education projects, and setting up co-operative businesses for local women) which was really beautiful, humbling, and eye-opening. Equally, my North Korea series was a once in a lifetime experience. Every day I would pinch myself to confirm I was actually there and what I was looking at was real.
What keeps you inspired?
Music for the most part I suppose, but also travel, art, comedy, fashion, cinema, podcasts, my friends. It can come from anywhere I guess. For me, the key to staying creative is to allow myself time to be free of boring day to day chores or things that distract you. Go to a place where there aren’t any external distractions and you can let your mind wander.