DEAN C.K. COX: NORTH KOREA AND BEYOND
by Polina Shubkina



© Dean C.K. Cox, from the "DPRK" portfolio, North Korea, 2013

Could you briefly describe your career?

Dean C.K. Cox (DC): I am a Hong Kong and Sweden-based editorial photojournalist and documentary photographer primarily covering former communist countries of central and eastern Europe, central Asia, the Caucasus, northern Europe, and Hong Kong.
I specialize in breaking news, documentary, hard news and features in international affairs, political commentary, social issues, environment, health, conflict and post-conflict zones, natural disasters and travel.

I have been a contract photojournalist with The Associated Press, The New York Times, EurasiaNet.org, and Bloomberg News, and have had images printed and posted by various U.S. and international newspapers, magazines, books and Web sites. My images have been used by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vogue Italia, Geo Germany, Time, Le Monde, L'Express, Courrier Japon, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, The Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times, Focus Italia, The Boston Herald, Bloomberg News, CBSNews.com, EurasiaNet, Salon.com, BBC, and dozens of other international news publications. I have had more than a dozen exhibitions in London, Sweden, and Hong Kong and have images in the collections of Eksjö Museum (Sweden) and the Museum of American Finance. I have worked in more than 50 countries during the past 20 years.


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the "DPRK" portfolio, North Korea, 2013

Could you briefly describe your adolescence as it relates to your later development into a photojournalist?

DC: My father was interested in black-and-white film photography and old WWII images. When I was around 10 years old I would join him sometimes in the dark room on the US military base in Germany where he served to see how he processed and developed film and then printed photos. I enjoyed watching how this controlled step-by-step process worked, but eventually when I started shooting on my own – my first “real” film camera was a Pentx K-1000 – I was much, much more interested in the capturing of the moment and composing the scene rather than the actual darkroom process. I am still like that. I prefer to be out shooting, discovering the world and experiencing daily life rather than locking myself in the real or the digital darkroom for hours to “process” the images.

Also, living in Germany when the Cold War was still hot, I started to become more politically interested in what was happening around the world. I became a real news and information junky from when I was very young. When I moved to the United States at 13 I did not really fit into the US lifestyle and culture of American football, high school angst, gun culture, and isolationist. I continued to build friendships with people mostly from outside the US and discovering through them a much greater world full of all kinds of surprises. That curiosity in wanting to see and know more eventually led me to journalism.

Why photojournalism? When did you first learn to tell stories with your photos?

DC: Photojournalism was definitely not my first career. I worked for two years as a US military contractor after completing my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. I quickly found out that defense contracting and engineering was not for me. So I enrolled in another undergraduate program in Tamp, Florida, for print journalism. I actually wanted to do a photojournalism degree, but could not find a university near me offering such a degree and the places where it was offered I could not afford. Therefore I actually have a second undergraduate degree as a print journalist (writer), but while I was studying and working as a freelance reporter I was also actively shooting photos for many of my stories. Eventually, after working as a high school sports reporter for a small newspaper and as a news assistant at the Associated Press in Miami I moved to New York to join the AP as a digital editor producing all kinds of multimedia content for the AP web site and digital customers. After five years with the AP, I joined CBS News as a special projects producer, again mostly working on multimedia news packages for the CBS News web site.

During my time with the AP and CBS News I was still shooting occasionally for my two employers and freelance projects on my own. On Sept. 11, 2001, while working for CBS News I went to the attacked World Trade Center site in downtown New York to shoot still images for the CBS News web site. Shortly after that I decided to strike out on my own as a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. I was fortunate to have contacts within the AP, Bloomberg News, The New York Times, and a photo agency (at that time World Picture Network), so with lots of hustle and initially a pretty weak portfolio I was able to build up a very steady stream of freelance assignments in New York City. In 2004 I moved to Sweden and built up my career as an independent international photojournalist.


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'DPRK' portfolio, North Korea, 2014


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'DPRK' portfolio, North Korea, 2014

Tell us about your trip to the North Korea a few years ago. Did you bring a group of students from HK Baptist University there? How difficult was it to get permission to shoot there?

DC: In spring 2014 I was one of six lecturers and professors with the School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University taking around 60 journalism and communication students on a four-day study trip to North Korea, where we visited Pyongyang, the Demilitarized Zone (from the north side), Nampo on the east coast, a collective farm in the countryside, and Kaesong in the south. I had considered bringing my Hasselblad to shoot medium format film photos, but when I inquired about shooting with a film camera the Chinese tour operator could not give me an acceptable answer if shooting with film would be possible. I has already heard and read that authorities in North Korea want to be able to look at the photos shot in case they want to try censoring them – meaning, delete them from the camera. In the end I decided to only bring one digital SLR with three lenses and an iPhone. 




© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Pyongyang Panos' portfolio, North Korea, 2014

On the iPhone I had preinstalled an app that acts as a way to hide photos taken with that app, which has a façade of acting as a calculator. When the user taps in a code, the app changes from the calculator part to a camera that can shoot and store images apart from the iPhone’s default photo folder. When we arrived in Pyongyang, our “guides,” who were very probably working for the North Korean government, told all of us – teachers and students – that we could shoot photos of everything except for things related to the military (soldiers and equipment) and construction sights. During the four days, the minders added additional items that were off limits for photos and they told me specifically if I wanted to take photos of or interact with regular people I would have to get the permission from the minders first. Of course I tried to take photos of everything I possibly could and of people on the street without asking them first. At every stop or place where we were visited I tried to drift away from our large group to take photos of anything possible. It became a kind of cat-and-mouse game between myself and the minders, who were constantly trying to keep up with me or quickly find me when they saw I was out of their eyesight. Overall, the minders were incredibly friendly and helpful. They were just doing their jobs without getting themselves in trouble and keeping me out of trouble as well. Throughout the trip the minders and other North Korean officials did go through the cameras of many students and teachers to delete photos they did not want to be seen. But, strangely, for me the never asked to look at the photos I shot. They asked me many times if I had taken photos of soldiers, construction sights or other things I shouldn’t have. I never tried to lie to them directly that I had, but found ways of getting around the questions and answers so that they would them let me continue. In addition to the photos with the SLR, I also shot iPhone panorama photos at various locations. The reason for this different format was to try to bring out different kinds of images from the ones I had already seen coming out of North Korea.



© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'DPRK' portfolio, North Korea, 2014


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the "DPRK" portfolio, North Korea, 2013


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'DPRK' portfolio, North Korea, 2014

How has photojournalism changed over time for you?

DC: Early on, when I was shooting many hard news and feature news assignments for the Associated Press and other wire services, for newspapers and magazines, and for my photo agency, my photography was very standard – almost formulaic. Shots needed to be mostly well lit, sharp, frozen, with all of the basic news elements needed in one shot. I shot very often with a flash. Often the photos needed to be illustrative or try to tell the story in one shot, because the space for photos in newspapers and magazines at the time was more limited. This is pre-digital and before web sites or mobile devices were able to take on the data traffic needed to showcase more photos. Over time, as clients and publications wanted more photos to tell stories for their digital publications I was “building” stories with more photos – 5, 12, 20 or more. I also studied an MA degree at the London College of Communication (University of Arts London) and was suddenly exposed to new styles of “journalistic” and “documentary” story telling. Now my stories and assignments are much, much less about the “singular” moment – trying to say everything with one photo – but about layering and contextualizing information; building a narrative; trying out different forms of visual story telling; choosing black-and-white or color depending on the story and what I am trying to show and say; sometimes even taking a “angle” or “stance” to tell a story; using commentary, the written word, audio, video, or other multimedia elements to build up the story. I am much more comfortable now with my own “visual voice” and style now than I used to be. At the beginning I had to make my images fit into the style I thought the newspapers and magazines wanted so that I knew I could also get called again for another assignment. Now I feel much more at ease trying to shoot a story with a different approach, of course without deviating from basic journalistic principles.

Even at the age of on-line video news, the still photograph remains a powerful journalistic tool. Why does it continue to be so impactful?

DC: If the moment of an important historical event is captured correctly and successfully through light, composition, and time, that photo can stand up on its own as the medium to define that moment and time in history. It allows the viewer to take his or her own time to explore the image and reflect on that moment. The moving image (video) comes and goes, whereas a photo has the power to stop time. There are many moments captured by still images – Nick Ut’s napalm girl, Eddie Adams’ Vietnam assassination, Joe Rosenthal’s WWII flag-raising at Iwo Jima, and so many more photos – where video of that event exists as well. So then why have those images become the iconic representations of that moment. Because they can freeze and show the beauty, the hate, the joy, the agony, the ugliness, the love, the sorrow, the pleasure of the world we live in. Video has its own strength as a medium. As does audio and the written word.

Our eyes are the main receptors of information for people. We use them more than any other sense to manage our way through life. They deliver information that our brains can process to trigger emotions and memories. And still images certainly stimulate those emotions, connections, memories, and sympathies within us.


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Angkor' portfolio, Cambodia


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Angkor' portfolio, Cambodia


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Angkor' portfolio, Cambodia

What was the most stressful assignment you had to photograph? 

DC: Wow, that’s hard to say. Each assignment has its own stresses, many of them very unique. I try to get through each assignment by mentally temporarily packing away my “home life” and convincing myself that every problem has a solution, no matter how grave or intense. The real job of a photojournalist very often is to problem solve. The editors do not want to hear me say I couldn’t get the shot (or shots). They rely on me to do whatever is necessary to be a journalist working with a camera. But the stresses are still there, even if I try to avoid or ignore them. There are the physical stresses that I have had to deal with, including being threatened, detained, sick, held at gunpoint, hungry and thirsty, beat up, shot at, injured, arrested, attacked by animals, sleep deprived, through extreme heat and cold, and more. There are the emotional stresses of missing my daughters, family, parents, friends and other people I love and care about. The stress of mental pressure to get the photos, to complete the assignment successfully, to working with difficult people, of dealing with hardware and software, of communicating with editors or people I shoot, and more. Then there is the stress of making a freelance career work; a struggle all on its own and not related to the actual assignment and shooting work.


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Diktat: Living Under Lukashenko' portfolio, Belarus 2006-2009

Sometimes what seems like the easiest assignment (a simple portrait session, a quiet protest rally, a travel assignment in an exotic location) can be stressful in itself, because you have to work very, very hard to make new and interesting, and very good, photos all of the time. It’s not that easy. There are a million photos being taken every day, and thousands a day being distributed and shared around the world. As an assigned and paid photographer I need to take photos that are better than the millions already out there and millions being taken right now. I am not longer in competition with a few hundred professional and staff photojournalists as 10 years ago. I am now in competition with the hundreds of millions of people who shoot digital images all the time, and very many of those photos and photographers are excellent. Photographic expectations are constantly being pushed higher and higher, and that’s good.


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Diktat: Living Under Lukashenko' portfolio, Belarus 2006-2009


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Diktat: Living Under Lukashenko' portfolio, Belarus 2006-2009

Which part of the world has been the most interesting for you to photograph?

DC: Since my youth, I have been interested in the former communist countries of Europe and Asia. I was born and grew up in a divided Germany, in a world on the edge of the Cold War erupting into WWIII. My father was a Cold War soldier with the US military. Once the Iron Curtain crumbled, once the Soviet Union dissolved, once communism crumbled throughout Europe, and once this part of the world opened up to me, it has been a nonstop exploration of people and cultures that for all of my youth were labeled as “the enemy.” This is a part of the world that has struggled and continues to struggle through its transition out of communism and under the control of the Soviet Union. Documenting the difficulties of political upheaval and the personal triumphs in this part of the world continue to keep me engaged and excited.


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Diktat: Living Under Lukashenko' portfolio, Belarus, 2006-2009


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Diktat: Living Under Lukashenko' portfolio, Belarus 2006-2009


© Dean C.K. Cox, from the 'Diktat: Living Under Lukashenko' portfolio, 'Belarus', 2006-2009

Can you describe your process of looking when you're out with a camera?

DC: I guess that process is determined by the project/assignment I am shooting and the kind of camera I have. I shoot with medium format Hasselblad film cameras, several SLR digital Nikon bodies with fast prime lenses, and with iPhone cameras. When I shoot with the Hasselblad cameras with film the process is much, much more slow; much more contemplative in building the picture. I take much more time on the street framing and composing the image, thinking of the light, colors and movement within the frame. Sometimes a single shot can take 15-20 minutes of thinking and framing before I trip the shutter; sometimes I may wait one hour in one location for all the elements in the frame to line up in the correct locations and for the correct light to fall on the scene. I don’t try to manipulate or set up scenes; what I see and discover is what I have to work with. With the iPhones, the project I shot in Hong Kong during several years was all about found moments. I did not “make a picture” or tried to “find a picture,” I just waited for the surprise, for the moment to reveal itself to me. I never really walk with the camera in hand with a “need” to make photos. Instead, I let the scene and moment present itself to me.


© Dean C.K. Cox from the series 'Hong Kong Alleys', Hong Kong, 2012-2013

Then I had to move quickly to capture what I was presented with. It was all very natural and absolutely stress-free. As for the editorial photojournalism assignments and projects I shoot on the DSLR Nikon bodies, these can be the most stressful, because I have to force myself to work hard within a short amount of time (a few hours, one day or several days) to get the shots needed by the publisher or commissioner. I work much more quickly, composing subconsciously, working harder to find that split second moment that sets the image apart and freezes the scene. I work a “scene” much longer, sometimes shooting dozens and dozens of photos before I am happy and move on to the next shot. I can shoot thousands of photos for an eventual edit of 10-20. I am also working as a journalist at this time, so I spend lots of time just talking to and interviewing subjects, observing the scene and waiting for that journalistic moment, and teaming up with writers.

I would say more succinctly, that: with the Hasselblads, I view the images that I shoot with a more artistic eye; with the iPhones with the eye of a street photographer; and with the DSLR with the eye of a journalist. I try to switch how and what I see across all these styles depending on what my project is and what gear I use.

Three photo-books that you recommend?

DC: 'Winterreise' by Luc Delahaye (Phaidon); 'The Suffering of Light' by Alex Webb (Thames & Hudson) and 'My America' by Christopher Morris (Steidl)

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LINKS
Dean C.K. Cox 
urbanautica United States