PYONGYANG, North Korea -- My window on North Korea is sometimes, quite literally, a window – of a hotel room, the backseat of a car, a train. Fleeting moments of daily life present themselves suddenly, and they are opportunities to show a side of the country that is entirely at odds with the official portrait of marching troops and tightly coordinated pomp that the Pyongyang leadership presents to the world.
In April, I was part of a group of international journalists that traveled by train to the launch site for this year's first, failed rocket test. We traveled in a spotless train used by the Communist leadership, and I spent the five-hour journey inside my sleeper car looking out the large, clean window at a rural landscape seen by few foreign eyes. The tracks cut across fields where large groups of farmers were at work in clusters. Occasionally, there was a plow drawn by oxen or a brick-red tractor rolling along the gravel roads. On a rocky hilltop above the train tracks, a small boy sprinted and waved at the passing train. Every few hundred yards along the entire route, local officials in drab coats stood guard, their backs to the tracks, until its cargo of foreign reporters had safely passed.
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I have made 17 trips into North Korea since 2000, including six since The Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang opened in January 2012. It is an endlessly fascinating and visually surreal place, but it is also one of the hardest countries I have ever photographed. As one of the few international photographers with regular access to the country, I consider it a huge responsibility to show life there as accurately as I can.
That can be a big challenge. Foreigners are almost always accompanied by a government guide – a "minder" in journalistic parlance – who helps facilitate our coverage requests but also monitors nearly everything we do. Despite the official oversight, we try to see and do as much as we can, push the limits, dig as deeply as possible, give an honest view of what we are able to see. Over time, there have been more and more opportunities to leave the showplace capital, Pyongyang, and mingle with the people. But they are usually wary of foreigners and aware that they too are being watched.
This has been a historic year for North Korea, with large-scale dramatic displays to mark important milestones, struggles with food shortages, crippling floods, drought and typhoons, as well as growing evidence that people's lives are changing in small but significant ways. But in a country that carefully choreographs what it shows to the outside world, separating what is real from what is part of the show is often very difficult.
Last spring, as North Korea was preparing for the 100th birthday of its late founder, Kim Il Sung, citizens practiced for weeks, even months, for the large-scale military parade and public folk dancing that was part of the celebration.
One morning, on our way through town, we saw small groups of performers walking home from an early rehearsal. They wore their brightly colored traditional clothing, but covered over with warm winter coats. In their hands were the red bunches of artificial flowers that they shake and wave in honor of country's leaders during mass rallies.
From the van window, I saw a woman standing alone, holding her bouquet as she waited for the bus. It was, to me, a more telling moment than the actual events we would cover a week later, a simple but provocative glimpse into one person's life.
For this project, I used a Hasselblad XPAN, a panoramic-view film camera that is no longer manufactured. Throughout the year, I wore it around my neck and shot several dozen rolls of color negative film in between my normal coverage of news and daily life with my AP-issued digital cameras.
The XPAN is quiet, discreet, manual and simple. Because it has a wide panoramic format, it literally gives me a different view of North Korea. The film also reflects how I feel when I'm in North Korea, wandering among the muted or gritty colors, and the fashions and styles that often seem to come from a past generation.
In my photography, I try to maintain a personal point of view, a critical eye, and shoot with a style that I think of as sometimes-whimsical and sometimes-melancholy. My aim is to open a window for the world on a place that is widely misunderstood and that would otherwise rarely be seen by outsiders.
I hope these images help people to develop their own understanding of the country, one that goes beyond the point-counterpoint presented by Pyongyang and Washington. And maybe they can help create some sort of bridge between the people of North Korea and the rest of the world.
In this April 8, 2012 photo, North Korean soldiers stand guard in front of the country's Unha-3 rocket at Sohae Satellite Station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite was launched on April 13, 2012 but failed to reach orbit. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 15, 2012 photo, North Koreans rest under portraits of the late leaders, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, at the end of a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of Kim Il Sung. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 8, 2012 photo, North Koreans walk under a highway bridge on the outskirts of Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 8, 2012 photo, a North Korean boy runs on a hilltop in the countryside in North Korea's North Phyongan Province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 7, 2012 photo, a North Korean woman stands on the side of a road holding artificial flowers after returning from a rehearsal for a mass parade planned for later in the week to honor the North Korean leaders in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 14, 2012, photo, North Korean military members chat as they line up at a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 18, 2012 photo, a North Korean family picnics in the grass at a hilltop park overlooking Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 15, 2012 photo, North Korean rockets roll past flower waving civilians and a soldier standing at attention during a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 8, 2012 photo, A North Korean stands on a rural road in the countryside in North Korea's North Phyongan Province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Tuesday, Aug 14, 2012 photo, forest printed wallpaper hangs around a doorway in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug. 8, 2012 photo, North Koreans gather under a diving board platform to watch as fellow swimmers hesitate to try a dive at a newly opened swimming pool in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Sept. 12, 2012 photo, ears of field corn lay in piles along a roadside during the autumn corn harvest on a farm on the edge of Kaesong, North Korea. It was a tough year for North Korea's farmers, who grappled with an extended dry spell in the spring, followed by heavy rains from a series of summer storms and typhoon. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 10, 2012 photo, North Koreans work at a communal apple farm factory for bottling apple juice on the outskirts of Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 3, 2012 photo, North Korean students practice playing the accordions at the Samjiyon Schoolchildrens' Palace in Samjiyon, North Korea. The facility was built for children to take part in after school programs in the arts, sciences, sports, computer and vocational training. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug. 11, 2012 photo, a North Korean plays badminton at Majon Beach near Hamhung, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 4, 2012 photo, a female North Korean soldier, working as a guide, stands before a map to explain the layout of what is said to be a camp site where the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung overnighted while leading a battle against the Japanese at the foot of Mt. Paektu. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Sept. 10, 2012 photo, a woman enters the front doors of the Grand People's Study House where a statue of the late leader Kim Il Sung stands in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 4, 2012 photo, artificial flowers decorate a wall inside a restaurant near Samjiyon, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Feb. 16, 2012 photo, North Korean soldiers march and carry a portrait of Kim Jong Il during a military parade at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang commemorating what would have been the late North Korean leader's 70th birthday. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aptil 10, 2012, photo, apple tree saplings stand in rows beneath workers' housing on a hill at a communal apple farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Feb. 18, 2012 photo, a coat dries on the balcony of an apartment block in central Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 14, 2012, photo, North Korean military members applaud the country's leaders, including Kim Jong Un, from their seats on the field of a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by North Korea's ruling party. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug. 13, 2012 photo, North Koreans try to move a truck, retrofitted to run on a barrel of burning wood, in a riverbed near Ungok, North Korea, during operations to aid victims of heavy flooding. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 17, 2012 photo, North Korean commuters ride on a trolley car in central Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug. 11, 2012 photo, a waiter at a hotel, catering to the country's elite, walks on the resort's private beach at Majon Beach near Hamhung, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Sept. 10, 2012 photo, North Korean commuters move in and out of a train on a subway platform at the metro station in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug 13, 2012 photo, a displaced North Korean man, left homeless by July flooding, walks among temporary tents and damaged homes in his destroyed neighborhood in Ungok, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
A banner reading "Thanks for nation. Citizens' happy era will open" from South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye hangs over a street in Goyang, South Korea, Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. Park promises to reach out to North Korea with more humanitarian aid and deeper engagement after she moves into presidential Blue House on Feb. 25. Pyongyang, however, may be in no mood to talk anytime soon. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
In this April 18, 2012 photo, North Korean men drink and sing inside a pagoda at a hilltop park overlooking Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug. 7, 2012 photo, the sun sets over Pyongyang, North Korea, behind the curtained window of a downtown hotel room. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 17, 2012 photo, North Korean men watch others play basketball at a public court in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 10, 2012 photo, North Korean pedestrians walk along a street past apartment blocks in central Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Sept. 10, 2012 photo, North Korean men study in desks beneath portraits of the country's late leaders, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug. 13, 2012 photo, North Koreans try to rebuild the banks of a washed out riverbed near their corn fields which were damaged by July flooding, in Songchon County, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 15, 2012 photo, North Koreans gather along the banks of the Taedong River in Pyongyang to watch a fireworks display to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Award-winning photographer David Guttenfelder is AP's chief photographer for Asia. He is based in Tokyo but makes frequent trips to North Korea to run AP's photo operations there.
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