Behind the Lens with Dave Kulesza

Dave Kulesza’s captivating photographic series DPRK: North Korea in Colour, gives us an insight into the unseen colours of architecture and design in the city of Pyongyang. 

To celebrate the release of his new prints, we sat down with Dave to discuss his time in North Korea, what’s next on his agenda and more.

What initially drew you to North Korea? 

I had always assumed a country such as North Korea was just a concrete jungle. The weather was always grim, and the people just wore black.  My first point of visual contact (outside of the mainstream political & military propaganda) was of a diving board in a health and recreation complex called ‘Changgwang’. Immediately I was drawn to this array of design and colour. A unique shaped yellow diving board stood proud amongst complimentary red spectator chairs and engulfed with a detailed blue ceiling and a curvy blue tiled pool. It made me question not only its origin, but also its existence. I had no idea a country such as North Korea could be so expressive in its design. I began digging a little deeper into other locations, perhaps this pool was just a one off. It didn’t take long before I discovered the colour, free flowing throughout the entire city. It wasn’t just the colour, but also the Brutalist & Socialist architecture that drew me, generally heavy and bold aesthetics, seemed to always be softened by the pastel surroundings echoing off the walls.  

How did the opportunity to visit and shoot in Pyongyang come about? 

I was extremely fortunate to have a family member of mine, Matt Kulesza, working as a western tour guide in North Korea at the time. This trip had been on the back burner for almost 3 year and was only really engaged as a reality when he notified me of his time as a NK guide concluding towards the end of 2019. It was actually a great kick up the bum to finally get things organised as I knew I would never go otherwise. I requested and commissioned Matt to be my guide on a private tour through his company ‘Young Pioneer Tours’ and we began to curate a 3 days schedule focusing only on architecture & design which I had accumulated over the years. Once understanding my brief, Matt was then also able to suggest various locations which I wasn’t aware of. It was incredible to trust in somebody with so much knowledge and experience of the country, shaping a far more insightful and honest tour, opposed to going in a larger group.

Were you met with any restrictions during your visit? Did this hinder your ability to shoot desired locations? 

There were only two moments in the trip a restriction was put into place. The first was of little significants. Military and construction sites are the only 2 subjects un-permitted to be photographed during your visit. Military is understandable as these rules can apply globally and the construction sites from my understanding are generally built by the NK military. So, I was asked to delete only 1 image by my guide during our entire trip on the first day, fortunately an uninspiring image of a kiosk stand, which had a guard visible in the distant background. It wasn’t anything major, just more of a procedure. The more significant however was a restricted visit to the new Science & Technology Centre, a North Korea ‘Science Works’ with a giant rocket in its centre, was certainly very high on my wish list to explore. Although commonly open to foreign tourists, we were simply told that we wouldn’t be able to visit on our trip. 

Did you have any pre-conceived ideas about North Korea that have since changed?

I was extremely open minded going in and politics were never a motivator for me. However, there were always small innocent bits of scepticism in mind, such as the common ‘Truman Show’ perception a lot of people have. Could it be possible that all the people you come into contact with, the 1000s of people walking the streets at the one given time you’re there, are all just actors putting on a grand show, just for me? Unfortunately, not. People go on with their daily routines like anywhere else and once you’re actually walking those streets, you become a part of it and forget where you are. 

You captured some incredible locations, what was the highlight?

The whole 3-day experience was incredible especially after a big build up over a few years in planning. It’s difficult to pick a highlight as so many different locations had their own key moments, however, the Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex was the key space I planned my entire trip around. It was only open on Saturdays to foreign tourists, so logistically it made it a little harder co-ordinating job bookings back home to accommodate travel times from Melbourne, to China, to North Korea, all while knowing in the back of my mind that there could be a chance that for some unknown reason, it will be closed on that 1 particular Saturday and I would simply miss out. Once we arrived, my jaw dropped from moment we stepped inside the lobby and I saw the arched cloak room with the kitsch green foot matt, staff in bright green uniforms & soft lilac painted walls behind the lockers. Every space in that building past that initial point certainly did not disappoint. 

What’s next on the agenda for DPRK, will we see a second series?

The series is essentially only 6 months old so I’m really just enjoying seeing it unfold and grow at the moment. I certainly have a strong desire to go back and photograph a second and potentially third series over the next few years as there are still so many incredible locations to explore and I’m intrigued as to what new buildings will pop up in the future. The direction would be the same, non-political, architecture, design & colour with a subtle touch of Wes Anderson. 

 Discover DPKR: North Korea in Colour here

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