DPRK photo show

It is almost two months since my return from the DPRK. Before I left on my trip I made arrangements at work to give two travel talks about my adventures. The publicity for these talks had already gone out before I even left on vacation, so upon my return I had to get cracking and work on what I wanted to say. From over 2400 photos I had to whittle the number down to fill up ninety minutes. At first I thought of limiting my photo count to fifty or sixty, under the impression that I didn’t want to blast the audience with too many pictures. As I decided upon what I wanted to talk about, that initial number quickly grew to over three hundred. I pared it down to just under that number.

Sixty photos would mean a slow turn-around and a lot of talking on my part with nothing to show for it. After several practice runs I realized that I could talk about three hundred pictures, at a rate of a hundred each half hour. Some pictures would require a lengthier explanation than others, while certain themes I wanted to illustrate, such as the blanket-domination of the entire country in Kim portraits, statues and slogans, could be covered in an intentional rapid series of photo changes. Thus the idea of showing three hundred photos in ninety minutes is not as overwhelming as it might initially seem. 

My first photo show was at the largest library in my city, the Mississauga Central Library. I had the photos prepared as a PowerPoint document and I projected the photos onto a screen. Blow-ups of some of the photos as well as some of my travel documents were used as props. As people entered the room they heard revolutionary male choral music. I wanted to put everyone in the mood, since that music was heard everywhere in the DPRK. Twenty-seven people attended the presentation, which I had advertised by giving it the boring yet functional name “Inside North Korea”.

Before I started, an older man came up to me to talk about my trip. He told me he was born in Hamhung, a large city in the DPRK. He and his family left Hamhung before the start of the Korean War. I told him that I was in Hamhung and had some photos that were in the presentation. He looked so happy that he would be seeing some recent pictures of the city of his birth. He took a seat in the front row, and took pictures of some of my blow-ups which I had set up on the display table. 

My presentation started with an introduction on how one goes about planning a trip to North Korea, with accompanying photos showing my DPRK visa, the Koryo Tours office in Peking and the exciting trip to the airport en route to Pyongyang. After this introduction, the photos were not shown chronologically but rather by theme. I covered such topics as the Arirang Mass Games; the larger-than-life architecture of Pyongyang; the nationwide portraits and sculptures of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung; political slogans on display everywhere; Kim Il Sung Square by day and at night; the Pyongyang subway; the USS Pueblo; Mount Paektu in the far north; water and electricity shortages everywhere outside the capital city; photographic restrictions and earned freedoms; the DMZ; and bookstores and souvenirs. I also showed a few video clips I had taken.

Shortly after I started the talk, the older Korean gentleman lifted his arms high in order to take pictures of the screen. I interrupted my talk to inform him that I would gladly send him any photos he liked electronically. He would receive a copy of the very photo he wanted versus a photo-of-a-photo. He would also be less distracting to all those who sat behind him, since by taking his own photos, he was obscuring the view for everyone else.

This man was among two older Korean couples in the audience. I held a half-hour question-and-answer session after the photo show and I felt I answered all the questions fine. I only got nervous when I was asked to provide a brief history of the Korean War. This war was a tragedy which uprooted the lives of millions, including these two senior Korean couples and their families. I did not feel qualified to answer that question and no matter how accurate my answer was, I worried that it would seem insulting in its brevity.

Earlier that day, I received a call at work from a young journalism student who wanted to interview me. We arranged to talk later on in the week. She was planning on attending the photo presentation that night yet did not introduce herself. When she called me two days later she told me who she was. Her mother, one of the older Koreans in attendance, told her that since I had said so little in my presentation that was negative about the country, she wondered if had been employed by the DPRK government. On the one hand I could see exactly where the mother was coming from, having fled from the North during the Korean War and then having spent the next sixty years reading anti-North propaganda from the South and the western media. On the other hand I felt that I did my job not to demonize the North–which is probably what many people in the audience expected, some sort of sensational trek through the east Asian Axis of Evil–and I took the mother’s remark as a high compliment.

This past Monday I gave the same travel talk to a smaller crowd of twelve at the Churchill Meadows Library in northwest Mississauga. As with my first presentation, a journalism student was in the audience. We arranged to conduct a phone interview later in the week. I spent ninety minutes with this student yesterday evening. I never would have thought that a by-product of my trip would be two students’ journalism assignments.

The DPRK photo tour is also going on the road. I was scouted two weeks ago at the Central Library by a member of a local university women’s alumnae group, which holds travel talks once a month at a club member’s home. I am booked to give my DPRK presentation for this group in April next year. And next Saturday I am taking the tour to the home of a friend where we will have a dinner party along with the photo show.

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