Photographer’s Rare Images Reveal Everyday Life in North Korea

A wide street with a few pedestrians and cyclists is flanked by buildings and trees. In the background, rolling hills and a blue sky with scattered clouds can be seen, creating a serene landscape.
Street scene, Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province.

At the end of each day, North Korean officials would review all of the photographs taken by Tariq Zaidi — deleting the ones they didn’t approve of. But then Zaidi was lucky to be capturing any images at all from inside the hermit state.

Only 5,000 non-Chinese tourists are estimated to visit North Korea each year and the Covid-19 pandemic saw the socialist state pull up the drawbridge entirely. However, Zaidi was fortunate to have visited twice before Covid and tells PetaPixel he wanted to “explore the ordinary in this extraordinary state.”

However, what he explored and got to see of North Korea was only what his two guides — who were with him at all times — permitted him to document,

“The guides frequently requested to view my images, leading to the immediate deletion of those they deemed unacceptable,” London-based Zaidi explains.

“They evaluated the photos taken and advised which ones should be discarded, emphasising the importance of retaining high-quality images. Their insistence on achieving ‘good photos’ amused me, prompting me to pledge improvement in my photography.”

A group of people are sitting on rocky ground by a river, enjoying a picnic. They are surrounded by lush greenery and large rock formations. Food items and picnic supplies are spread out on blankets in front of them.
People have a picnic lunch near the Ulim Waterfalls. The Ulim Waterfalls are named after the Korean word for echo or vibration, appropriate as the rumbling sound of the falls extend over a four kilometres radius.
A densely packed cityscape featuring numerous colorful high-rise apartment buildings in shades of yellow, pink, green, and blue. In the background, a unique monument with three large, sculptural towers is visible amidst the buildings.
City view taken from the Tower of Juche Idea, Pyongyang. Monument to Party Founding can be seen top right of the image. The monument depicts the hammer, sickle and brush seized by a worker, a farmer and an intellectual.
Two young students wearing white shirts, red ties, and backpacks walk on a sunny street. One has a bright blue backpack, and the other has a beige backpack. Both have badges pinned to their shirts. Trees and a grass area can be seen in the background.
School girls. Pyongyang.

The North Korean officials barred Zaidi from taking images relating to the military which he says is consistent with global norms.

“They also discouraged photographing individuals alone but allowed group shots,” he adds.

“Many images were taken in motion, capturing street scenes from moving vehicles. Conversely, authorised locations like the Science Centre and official monuments were photographed with guide accompaniment.

“Notably, the guides consistently reviewed my images and requested specific deletions. When asked about deleting non-military content, they stressed a dedication to excellence: ‘We only want you to take the best pictures possible – please try to take only good pictures.’ This response brought a smile to my face.”

A rural scene of people and animals near and in a river. Trucks are parked close to the water, and cattle are walking through the river. Individuals are engaged in various activities, including some near the vehicles and others tending to cows and goats.
People wash cars and collect gravel at a riverbank, on the road between Ulim Waterfalls and Hamhung.
A person in uniform stands on a sandy beach with hands behind their back, looking towards the ocean. Several beachgoers, some in swimwear, are seen walking along the shore and playing in the water. The sky is overcast, and a forested area is visible in the background.
Man in military uniform watches over beachgoers near Wonsan.
A person in a formal uniform stands by a door, partially opening it to reveal another person peeking through. The background is a vibrant mural depicting a mountainous landscape with trees in autumn colors. Various furniture pieces are in the foreground.
Porter and woman in the lobby of Kumgangsan Hotel at Mt Kumgang. The Hotel is the site of reunion meetings between North and South Korean families. Mt Kumgang Tourist Resort.
A large bronze statue of two men stands in front of a building with a mural of mountains. One man is waving while the other has his hands at his sides. A crowd of people is gathered at the base of the statues, with many of them in military uniforms. The sky is overcast.
Mansudae Grand Monument. An enormous bronze statue of President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Jong Il, downtown Pyongyang. Image taken the day before Liberation Day where military personnel are visiting the monument to lay flowers for the leaders. Liberation Day is one of the most important days in North Korea, celebrating its liberation from Japan at the end of WW2.

Upon arriving in North Korea, Zaidi had his equipment examined and documented before entering the hermit country. Afterward, he traveled all across North Korea visiting Dandong on the Chinese border down to the Demilitarized Zone in the south.

The photographer says that people were welcoming and hospitable, although he drew mixed reactions when raising his camera.

“Children were generally OK with me taking pictures, and adults allowed me to take photos after a few minutes of politely asking, although it did depend on where we were,” he says.

“In the metro, for instance, when I pointed my camera at people, they all shyly put their heads down to avoid being photographed. I’m unsure if that was due to cultural differences, shyness, or the lack of camera culture. Like anywhere else in the world, I photographed those willing to be photographed and respected those who were not.”

A young girl in a white dress plays a cello in a room with blue curtains and a wall clock showing 3:55. She is seated near an open window that shows part of a building outside. The room appears orderly with a green piece of furniture on one side.
Girl plays a cello at Chongnam Kindergarten, Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province.
A military jacket decorated with various medals and ribbons is hanging on a wall. A lace shroud covers the top part. There's a framed photo of a couple in wedding attire on the left side and the top part of a fan visible at the bottom. The wall has a floral pattern.
A coat adorned with medals hangs in a farmer’s home at Migok Cooperative Farm, Sariwon.
Two individuals in green military uniforms are standing behind a wooden counter, engaged in conversation. Both wear matching green caps and are in a serious discussion. Beside them is a glass door with blue text written in Korean.
A private moment between the entrance guards at the Grand People’s Study House. The Grand People’s Study House is the central library located in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
Students in uniform, each sitting at an easel, are sketching various geometric shapes and sculpted busts. The classroom walls feature anatomical charts and educational posters under focused lights.
Drawing class at the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang.

Zaidi first visited North Korea in 2017 when he planned to attend and photograph a beer festival until it was indefinitely postponed. But he embraced his structured visit capturing as much everyday life in North Korea which he has now published into a book titled: North Korea: The People’s Paradise.

“I endeavored to document what I witnessed, was shown, heard, and felt to the best of my abilities throughout my time in North Korea,” he says.

“My goal is to provide readers with a comprehensive and immersive experience, given the limitations of operating in North Korea. Forming one’s perspectives now falls upon those who engage with my work.”

More of Zaidi’s work on Instagram, Facebook, and his website.

Image credits: ©Tariq Zaidi