Can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you enjoy crafting a story using the imaging medium?
I’m a 26-year-old writer and photographer. The bulk of my work is a combination of celebrity profile pieces and long form reportage. I’ve reported on stories from Iraq, Colombia, and all throughout Europe and Australia. Most recently, I travelled to North Korea to write and shoot a feature for the Australian edition of GQ magazine. I also do a little brand consulting and wedding photography.
As a younger freelancer, I started to realise that the more ambitious stories that I wanted to tell needed to be supported by imagery. We’re visual creatures. Photos stimulate us and pull us into a story. Now, my best features prioritise words and photography equally.
Based on your first impressions before going to North Korea and what you know now, are you surprised by the way people live there?
This is a tricky one. Tourism in North Korea is so impeccably controlled, so micro-managed, so on-rails, that it’s impossible to say whether or not what you see represents the reality.
We spent most of our time in Pyongyang, the city of the elites. You don’t make it in Pyongyang unless your family has paid its dues. It’s not representative of life there.
For me, the closest we came to seeing regular life in the DPRK was in the in-between moments: The famers carrying heavy loads on the side of a rural highway. The kids being petulant to their parents on the way home from school in a little country town. The way our tour guides would relax and go a little red in the face after a few beers. I loved those mundane moments. People still go to work, and save up for the clothing they want – they still get a little sleepy in the mid-afternoon and like bragging about accomplishments. They’re just people. Those moments meant more to me than any choreographed events on our itinerary.
You mentioned to us you were planning on taking a Digital SLR to North Korea. Can you tell us why you chose to take the Fujifilm X100T instead?
I actually did take a full DSLR kit to North Korea – I had a full-frame Canon and a slew of lenses. My big ol’ kit. But, by chance, I’d bought an X100T a few months earlier. I’d been craving something smaller and snappier. I bought it along to North Korea too.
I was a few months into owning my X100T and was starting to fall in love with it a little. I’d just shot a feature all over South Africa with it – I was feeling confident. I loved its small size, its silent operation, and its insanely pretty straight-out-of-camera colours.
But this was a bigger, once-in-a-lifetime assignment. I never expected to use the X100T as much as I did. After a few days in Pyongyang, I couldn’t help myself – I benched my bulky DSLR, and made the X100T my go-to. Seeing the end product, I have no regrets.
How did you find the Fujifilm X100T for capturing spontaneous and candid moments? Was there any stand out feature(s) you loved using?
This will sound a little naïve, but coming from DSLR land, I was totally blown away by the viewfinder. To see, more or less, precisely how an image will look – exposure and all – before I even take it? Unreal. It gave me so much confidence. It also meant that I could pay way more attention to the moment that was unfolding in front of me. The X100T’s viewfinder has improved my framing dramatically.
The whole experience has me teetering on the edge to switching my professional kit to a Fujifilm mirrorless system. Maybe the X-T2. We’ll see.
When capturing photographs in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did you ever think the officials would take the photos away from you? Was there any moments where you were a bit worried or became paranoid?
Totally. I was paranoid the whole time I was there. After I Facetimed my girlfriend from Beijing airport to say goodbye, I had no way of communicating with my friends or family for a week. Not being permitted to wander off alone, and a persistent, sinking feeling of being watched takes a mental toll on you.
Without an invitation from the government, travelling to the DPRK as a journalist was risky. Despite working for a magazine, I embarked on this story as a lone freelancer. If everything went to hell, I’d be in it on my own, and I’d only have myself to blame.
As tourists, we were told not to photograph any military officials, nor residents in poorer rural areas. Happily, the tiny, unassuming design of the X100T helped me operate a little more stealthily. Aside from being super pleasing to the eye, its retro styling conceals the power it has under the hood.
There was one moment that I do regret – while travelling on a bus en route to a rural destination, I snuck a photo of a soldier at a security checkpoint. I didn’t even have the camera up to my eye, but he instantly knew I’d photographed him. I was pulled off the bus and grilled for a few minutes. I was lucky to get away with it.
On the journey back to Beijing – a 24-hour train-ride – we were stopped at the Chinese border and had our belongings inspected thoroughly. They went through every camera and every phone, shot-by-shot. I’d deleted every incriminating photo off my camera, and had the whole week backed up on several SD cards, which were stashed all through my luggage.
Looking at your photographs what did you want to portray as an overall body of work?
I hate dehumanisation. I hate it when a population is painted with the same brush that its leader is. That thinking has been the cause of so many horrific things. When I chatted to people in Iraq on the ten-year anniversary of the invasion, I was astonished at how gentle, considered, thoughtful and empathetic they were. Yet the citizens of Baghdad had been painted uniformly as America-hating, dictator-worshipping would-be insurgents. That thinking is dangerous – I want to counter that.
I was determined to show a different side of the DPRK – something beyond the marches and mass dances and the iconic leader. Something more dull and mundane and familiar and warm. It’s a little cheesy to say, but humanity always finds a way to show through, especially in adverse situations. I wanted to show that humanity.
You were there to participate in a marathon, did you end up capturing any photographs in the stadium and surrounding areas? What were your observations and reaction when taking photos of the people?
I did. The citizens of the DPRK were as fascinated by us as we were them. The whole thing was like a symbiotic zoo – staring at each other with amazement, but wholly unable to communicate meaningfully.
If you were to change or add one feature on the Fujifilm X100T to make it a better camera what would it be and why?
Can I be greedy and ask for more than one? It’s so close to my dream camera.
My priorities would be:
• Improving the battery life. I’m the type to get serious battery anxiety – I remedy that by bringing a portable USB powerpack around.
• Increasing the megapixel count (I love printing photos at ridiculous sizes).
• Giving the video functionality a little more love. The film simulations and viewfinder give it an unbelievably cool foundation. I’d add smart autofocus, OIS, and a high FPS mode for silky, filmic slow motion.
• Add the ACROS film simulation!! I’m dying to try it.