Taking photos of everyday North Korea is often considered a risky endeavor, if not tantamount to espionage. But for British filmmaker Matt Hulse, all it required was a cheap Chinese phone, a clip-on lens and a room with a view.
Shot from a hotel balcony during three trips to Pyongyang, his eerie, voyeuristic images show some of the city's residents going about their daily lives. The pictures form part of "Sniper," an Asia-wide photo series that was chosen from over 2,000 entries to win a Felix Schoeller Photo Award.
But Hulse, who lives in Beijing and regularly travels to North Korea as a tour guide, says that he didn't break any rules capturing the shots -- despite the well-documented restrictions facing foreign visitors to the country.
"There's nothing stopping people taking photos from their hotel windows," he said in a phone interview. "And if they had seen me, they would just have thought, 'There's a guy with a phone taking photos of the beautiful city.'
"If one of the guides had asked to see the pictures, they would have been more bemused than anything. They'd probably say, 'Why are you taking pictures of a bus driver when he's not even looking at the camera?' They wouldn't understand the art photography angle of it at all."
A 'sinister' aesthetic
Resembling the view through a sniper rifle's scope, the photos' distinct aesthetic was produced using a detachable telescopic lens. Bought for less than $10 and affixed to a "not particularly brilliant" phone, the device flattened the perspective of Hulse's photos and created their distinct circular frames.
"It could just be a driver or a guard having a cigarette or something," he said. "But because of the way the photos look, and the angle they're shot at, they have a certain voyeuristic, sinister quality to them."
Despite this, the series is intended to display "a certain kind of humor." While Hulse found snooping on people "slightly uncomfortable," the normality of the scenes depicted offer a new perspective on a notoriously secretive society.
The "Sniper" collection includes similar photos taken in Hong Kong and Mongolia. They too capture unaware subjects shot from high vantage points. But Hulse readily admits that people's fascination with North Korea adds a certain mystique to the Pyongyang images.
"There's nothing really going on (in the photos) other than what's in the viewer's mind," he said. "If you didn't know it was North Korea, it would have a different impact. But North Korea is, as ever, of great fascination to the media. Everyone who comes to the photographs is bringing a whole load of (their own) references and associations.
"The way that the photos look suggests that there must be something else going on -- and that's the art of it. You might see the pictures and think they have nice texture or composition, but it's all the other information that makes them richer."