Grooving in the Garden An outdoor speaker plays popular local music while people of all ages gather to dance in a Pyongyang park.

David Guttenfelder’s award-winning photographs show how sports and recreation are a part of daily life in North Korea.

By Melody Rowell
Photographs by David Guttenfelder

Photographer David Guttenfelder is one of the few westerners who has spent extensive time in North Korea. He first began traveling to the isolated country in 2000, and he helped open the Associated Press Bureau in Pyongyang in 2012. Over the years, he’s noticed a cultural change in the capital city. It’s a change that’s come on wheels.

“Rollerblading and North Korea—you wouldn’t associate those two things.”

Guttenfelder says since Kim Jong-un took over as supreme leader in 2011, there has been a push to bring Pyongyang up to international standards. And a key part of that push has been an emphasis on athleticism and recreation. That means rollerblades.

“I can’t count the number of rollerblading locations there are in the capital city and all over,” Guttenfelder says. “it was largely the elite, but it really spread all over the country, this sudden call for people to go out and play games and do recreation.”

After the Associated Press bureau opened, Guttenfelder spent more than three years in and out of North Korea. He was tasked with photographing not only news, but also daily life. “My whole work there as a photojournalist was to have a critical eye,” he says. “But it was also to be a humanist and to show that there are regular people trying to get by, trying to live their lives.” His dedication to photographing North Korea over the years has paid off. This week, Guttenfelder won third place in the 2016 World Press Photo Contest, in the Long-Term Projects category.

North Koreans have very little free time; most of them work six days a week. And they also have very little control over how they use their time outside of work. But as Guttenfelder’s photographs show, North Koreans not only rollerblade—they dance, play basketball, compete in arcade games, jump off the high dive, and put on plays. “A lot of this is for the highest class of people,” Guttenfelder points out. “But it’s not only them. It’s really spread out all over.”