Peek Inside North Korea Through a New Set of Eyes

North Korea Political Games
Wong Maye-E—AP
Gymnasts are silhouetted as they practice their routine in Pyongyang, Sept. 2, 2014. North Korea will soon send its top athletes to what could be the biggest sporting event of their lives and a major national propaganda campaign: the Asian Games in South Korea.

Wong Maye-E knows a shot when she sees one.

An Associated Press photographer since 2003 — on a freelance basis after graduating from the Temasek Polytechnic School of Design and a stint with The Straits Times, until joining its staff in 2006 — she has covered everything from political protests in Thailand and the garment factory collapse in Dhaka to the impact of Typhoon Haiyan on the Philippines and the recent World Cup in Brazil. Now, her responsibilities also include news and everyday life in reclusive North Korea — a beat made famous by former AP photographer David Guttenfelder.

This opportunity “has awakened for me the enthusiasm I had when I chose to be a photojournalist,” she tells TIME, “to be able [to] share my experiences with people, who do not have these opportunities to come to places like this, in the most accurate way.”


Wong Maye-E—AP

Nazimah Yaccob Mohammed kisses her 11-year-old son, Shanowaz, as they share a moment in Singapore, Nov. 11, 2003. Nazimah was convicted of housing an illegal immigrant and was jailed on Nov. 27. Singapore's president rejected her plea for house arrest instead of a 15-month prison sentence so she could be with her mentally ill and quadriplegic son.

Wong, 34, hails from Singapore and first traveled to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in July 2013. She worked alongside Guttenfelder during the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. After Guttenfelder left AP, with an unmatched portfolio spanning two decades, she accepted an offer to become the outlet’s lead photographer there. (AP opened a full bureau in downtown Pyongyang in 2012.)

Keeping his advice to her in mind — “Do what you do, and be yourself, and you will be all right,” she recalls — Wong is committed to accurately and creatively capturing reality in North Korea. In the last few months, she has photographed women who work at a textiles factory, pro wrestlers and three Americans detained by the government.

Wong tries to visit the country about once a month, for about 10 days at a time, and, unsurprisingly, is shadowed by a minder at all times. “Trust between us and them has to be built and the working relationship seems to be good, but always delicate,” she says. “We aren’t allowed to wander around independently and absorb everything around us at our own leisure and pace. I have to be patient. There is no other way to operate here.”

Cambodia Sihanouk

Wong Maye-E—AP

A woman sits while her head is shaved to mourn the late Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk ahead of Sihanouk's funeral in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 31, 2013.

Assignments can vary. Wong doesn’t have a beat and enjoys shooting everything — “as long as it involves people” — but prefers breaking news and sports. She sailed for much of her youth and later represented Singapore in competitions.

Wong usually carries two DSLRs and an assortment of lenses that include a 70-200 mm, 24-105 mm or 16-35 mm, and both a 40 mm and 50 mm. She also tows around a 200-400 mm if she needs to photograph officials who are far away. Beyond that, she brings along a small point-and-shoot camera and her iPhone, both of which she uses a lot from moving vehicles: “It’s the best way to see things that are unexpected.”

APTOPIX Cambodia Sihanouk Funeral

Wong Maye-E—AP

A boy walks past a puddle with a reflection of a portrait of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Feb. 4, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered in Cambodia's capital for his cremation.

She hasn’t drawn too much attention in Pyongyang and life outside the city — where few foreigners and journalists have traipsed — has proven a whole other experience.  “When I started shooting, they weren’t offended, but they would pause; some smile, some run away and some stare at you,” she recalls. “They seem to be a little nervous and don’t really know how to react.”

Wong is learning more about the country’s history, to firmly grasp the context of what she encounters, as well as the language. She realizes the enormity of the opportunity to work in a location where coverage is still at its early stages and that her pictures will help shape outsiders’ perceptions: “The responsibility that comes with that should keep me in check.”

Wong Maye-E is an Associated Press photographer based in Singapore. Follow her on Instagram w0ngmayee

Andrew Katz is a homepage editor at TIME and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz and Instagram @katzandrew

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