Pyongyang Style – North Korean Haircut

A few months ago, I had the privilege of visiting North Korea for a second time.  This time to shoot video – something I hadn’t done since Anhui.

Pretty much the only way anyone can visit North Korea is by joining a tour.  Because China is North Korea’s only ally, I knew my joining a Chinese tour would have fewer restrictions.  The North Koreans see less of a need to put on a show for the visitors; as is more the case with western tours.

Although both still photography and video are permitted, lenses that are above 200mm (more powerful zoom lenses) are not allowed.  As long as you take pictures or video of the places that they take you, it’s fair game.  North Korea wants the world to see their good side…

One evening when I returned to my hotel, I walked into a hair salon that seemed kinda hidden and not very well advertised.  The hairdresser that greeted me was boisterous and cheerful, and didn’t speak a word of any foreign languages.  I quickly realized that this might be one of the few opportunities any foreigner would get to interact with someone who wasn’t either a minder or tour guide, a shopkeeper or waitress (all of whom are well-versed in foreign languages).

There was something genuine and uncontrived about her that made me feel like she was just a normal hairdresser who somehow got placed to work in a hotel that hosted foreigners.  She was charming and quirky.  And for the first time, I felt like I was seeing something real, which wasn’t just being shown to me.

The first step was figuring out how much the haircut would cost.  After a few back and forth attempts to talk to each other (and trying to use every language that I barely knew a few words of), I made a gesture of a pen and paper.  She wrote down the number 20 first, and then wrote down the number 2.  I then realized that she meant “either 20 RMB, or 2 Euros.”  (As a tourist, you are not allowed to handle their currency – the reasons which I will blog about another time).

I thought it might be an interesting thing to record – getting a haircut, so I put my camera on the table in front of me, and turned it on…

Because I was part of the One Day On Earth project, covering North Korea, I knew I was going to shoot a lot, and I didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to myself.  On my last trip, a “media checker” dressed in a military uniform had to go through every picture on everyone’s cameras when leaving the country.  I decided it would be easier to not reveal the fact that my camera is capable of taking video, so I covered the back screen with black electrical tape.

As I shot with Nikon lenses by way of a simple adapter, I lost any form of autofocus.  In addition, I thought it would be even more covert to manually focus without putting the camera to my face or looking through the viewfinder at all. For a few weeks before my trip, I’d practice every day, shooting with the camera around my neck, manually focussing and composing blindfolded.

It worked – although I took over 80 gigs of video, I didn’t stick out too much in the group.  And the funning thing is, this time the media checker didn’t even show up.

One Day On Earth is a global film project where on 10.10.10, at least one filmmaker in every single country in the world would film the highlights over a 24 hour period.  I covered North Korea.  The raw footage will eventually come out as a feature film, but here, I’ve made my own edit.  Stay tuned for the feature film though.  It’s a great project that we believe will help bring the world together.

Sarajevo Gypsies

Elvis, 24, and Medina, 20, have been married for six years. They have a daughter, Elvisa, 5 (pictured with bottle), and they are expecting another child soon. Medina, who is eight months pregnant, dropped out of school shortly after third grade. Elvis has never gone to school. They live a nomadic lifestyle and are constantly on the move – always together with their extended family.

Sarajevo 1

I found myself in the same compartment with Elvis and Medina on the train ride from Sarajevo to Mostar. As I was sitting face to face with Elvis, we tried to communicate with one another, and to my surprise, Elvis attempted to speak to me in Italian.

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It turns out that Elvis relocated to Rome in the early 1990s during the Bosnian War. Growing up in Rome, I’d been well acquainted with gypsies. There was a gypsy camp not one kilometer from where I lived, and I’d pass their trailers every day on the way to school. The children would often play at the local church, the men could often be seen in grocery stores, picking up supplies, and many of the women begged on the streets; and in the early 1990s, they often (while begging) held up their IDs and documents, and cried out that they were from Sarajevo. This was the first time however, that I interact with one.


We talk about Italy for a bit, and eventually, Elvis tells me that he hated his time in Italy because of the prejudice his family experienced being gypsies (zingari). He said that Chinese restaurants were of the few places that did not refuse him service, and as a result, he ate at them once every few months. I was curious as to how he made money – he sold fake perfumes at beaches for a while, and worked several temporary odd jobs involving manual labor, and he’d stolen as well, which I got the impression he felt was justified.

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Medina, at just 20 years, has lost most of her teeth due to poor dental hygiene. She also happens to be a chain smoker. The boy in the picture is Elvis’s younger brother Medio.

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Top, clockwise: Esmeralda, 13, Elvis’s cousin, Medio, Elvisa, and Titanic, 11, named after the Hollywood blockbuster “Titanic.”

As I was taking pictures of them on the train, I noticed that the other Bosnians on the train seemed to find it strange I was interacting with them. It was pretty clear to me that Elvis’s family, even in their native country are discriminated against.

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When the ticket checker came to our compartment, I noticed that none of them had a ticket. Elvis argued with the checker for a while in the local language, and he ended up successfully bribing the checker with the equivalent of 10 euro. Remarkable, as each ticket was 8 euro, and there were about 10 of them.

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Elvis was constantly complaining of dental pain, and kept on taking some kind of painkiller. Eventually, he tore a piece of cardboard off of a cigarette carton, and fashioned it into a thin stick. He then had Medina insert it into a “tunnel” in his gums (see below).

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And then when we got to Mostar, they left without saying goodbye. This is what Mostar looked like that night:




Smithfield Meat Market

The Smithfield meat market is one of the oldest markets in London, and one of the largest meat markets in Europe.  The imposing Victorian building supplies butchers, shops and restaurants with meat, and most of the trading happens around 4:00 am.  It is the only major market in London not to have moved out of central London for cheaper land, and is becoming increasingly off-limits to the general public.

I arrived at 2:30am.  Having been granted access, and fitted with a hard hat and white coat, it was as though I was given carte blanche.  I almost felt spoiled – this was quite a contrast to my usual covert/guerrilla photography.

What surprised me about the place was how clean and efficient everything was.  All the workers seemed to be in high spirits, cutting up carcasses while, what seemed like easy-listening elevator music played in the background.

Most of the guys I talked to had been working in the industry for over a decade, and I got a sense of camaraderie amongst the workers.  The dynamics between them reminded me of the time I spent living with the firefighters of Charlottesville.

Each of them seemed to maintain a certain threshold of masculinity, and enjoyed joking around or playing pranks on each other.  Charlie(pictured below), who’s younger than the rest, really got picked on while I was there: “Charlie!  Charlie!  Smile for the gentleman!  You’re going to be a movie star, Charlie!”

Poor Charlie was trying his best to not laugh, probably because I told him to be as he is and ignore me.  However, what he didn’t realize was that his queue to laugh is being as he is.  I have to be extra careful in the future, as asking for no art direction is art direction.

Buyers come with suitcases, and I actually saw them point all the way to the back to pick the carcass they want.

By the time I was done, it was 4:00, and unfortunately, I had to take two busses to get back to where I live.  London’s not as cool as NYC – it doesn’t have a 24/7 subway.  I waited 40 minutes in the blistering cold for my bus at the St. Paul’s bus stop, where I had nothing better to do than to take pictures:


Jennifer and Nathan’s NYC Wedding

Earlier last month, I was flown in for Jennifer and Nathan’s wedding.  Both Columbia University graduates, Nathan is a lawyer and Jennifer, who’s also a graduate of Juilliard, is a violinist who runs her own company Amadeus Musicians.

In this multimedia piece, you’ll experience the sights and sounds of New York, complete with street a cappella singers in Central Park and an exquisite quartet performance by Juilliard grads.















• Enjoy the pleasures of full screen HD.

And, yes, this is safe for work.

Miss Banbury Cross at the Proud Cabaret

I first met Miss Banbury Cross (not her real name) as she was doing her hair, right before her performance at The Tassel Club.  She’s an up and coming burlesque performer and Marilyn Monroe impersonator based in London.  Her shows have taken the burlesque scene by surprise, and she has already been featured in several magazines.




























On this particular evening, Banbury was performing at the Proud Cabaret, a posh restaurant close to Monument tube station that features an intimate stage complete with a grand piano.




























There were several other performers backstage, and while Banbury’s blonde hair certainly stood out, it didn’t really hit me until I saw her perform, as to why she was the featured performer that evening.  Before I say any more about Banbury, lets take a look at some of the other performers with unique acts…

Pixie Le Knot (also not her real name) is a contortionist who’s half Malaysian.  Here, she’s stretching against a wall, and you can actually see my feet on the left.

And here she is right before the curtains open, as she’s doing some last-minute stretching.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember what the next two performers are called, but they were certainly noteworthy.




























Again, on stage before the curtains open.

So back to Banbury Cross (is it kosher to reveal these performers’ actual names?  I feel weird referring to human beings using the Miss + not-an-actual-name nomenclature).




























As someone who has only seen a couple of burlesque shows, I certainly felt like Banbury stood out from anything else I’d seen.  Her performances felt more real and intimate, as if she were making telegraphically poignant connections with the audience.  If I were to talk about this analytically, without flowery bombastic bs pseudo-artistes often exercise, I’d say she puts on quite a multitude of sultry facial expressions.

This reminded me of something I glanced over once in one of my psychology textbooks of an illustrated page, exhausting possible human facial emotions.  From a photography point of view, the better a subject is able to convey emotions via the face, the better the connection between the viewer and the photograph.  If I had to pick between an imperfectly exposed/focused picture with a strong facial expression and one that’s technically perfect, but emotionally lacking, I’ll almost always opt for the former.  To break the ever raising threshold of emotional blandness, I’m almost exclusively shooting for strong visual emotions now.  In fact, to have emotional ups and downs, I am convinced, is the way to live life.  Neutral emotional states are simply too unremarkable.




























I spoke to Banbury after the show, about what burlesque is, and whether it’s something that requires training and a strict regimen.  She says she’s never had any lessons or training, and that she “sort of makes it up as it goes along.”  I feel very strongly about getting into something without any training (as it brings a fresh touch to a stale discipline, as well as makes it more accessible by shielding the learner’s anxiety), and I don’t believe in idolizing schools of thought or even instructors for that matter.  Good common sense will take you 90% of the way there.




























After wiping off, she threw on her after performance attire to go outside where fans await, for a hand rolled cigarette.

Projections & Speech for I ♥ Street Photo

The projections at Trafalgar, Leicester and Hoxton squares went exactly according to our plans, as was the evening at The Book Club.  Apart from some curious police towards the end, no one gave us any trouble.  The projection crew met up at Trafalgar Square close to sunset, and we set up right in front of The National Gallery.

Our street photography was projected onto white canvasses held up.

We then headed over to Leicester Square.

Some of you who weren’t able to make it to The Book Club have asked about the speech, so I’m including a transcript below.  Many thanks to everyone who came.  Clause 43 was dropped because of support like yours.  Hopefully they’ll revise these ICO guidelines in the near future.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.  My name is Steve Gong, and on behalf of So Shoot Me, I thank you for joining us tonight on this very special event: I Love Street Photo.

I hope you have had the chance to see the hugely successful “human light show” demonstration/exhibition that we’ve been putting on in the past few hours on Trafalgar square, Leicester and Hoxton squares.

As you are all aware, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to take pictures, especially street photography.// and thinking about how far we’ve come as a species, I remembered a concept from my days when I was doing Biology.

It’s a concept in Genetics and Evolution, known as Dual Inheritance, which states that at some point during the evolution of the human species, we gained the capacity to store and transmit culture//  And really, that is what set us apart from other forms of life…And that was really brought on by having a written record// for suddenly, we could transmit information not just to our immediate contacts, but to entire future generations.

And then, another revolutionary thing happened, with the birth of photography, in particular, Street Photography, as Street Photography provides in-the-moment social documentary, photos that are unscripted, unposed or set up.  Capturing forever changing fashion trends, hairstyles, automobiles, and buildings // it’s a record for future generations.

What the government wants to do is to take that away.  This would be akin to setting humankind back to a more primitive state in our cultural evolution – a time when there were no visual records for future generations.  To ban street photography is to ban our sentience, our emotions, our accomplishments. It would be to ban what it means to be human.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I refuse to have some petty law govern my photographic practice.  So no matter what ridiculous laws they decide to bring out, I hope that you will all continue with what we’ve started// Continue with Street Photography…whether-or-not that means going head to head with authority, or circumventing the law.

So continue shooting, everyone, and to quote our mentor John Easterby from our brief for the Street Photography assignment:  “take to the streets, and put in the miles.”

I ♥ Street Photo / So Shoot Me

I rarely show my street photography, but here are a few I shot last month all in London…

Valentine's Day, London

Next week, a group of London-based photographers, including myself, is staging an open-air exhibition to demonstrate against the increasing restrictions being placed on British street photographers…

Euston Station

The thirty-strong group of photographers, known collectively as ‘So Shoot Me’ are staging the event I ♥ Street Photo.  This unique evening of ‘roaming human projection’ will celebrate new street photography, and express their serious concerns about the survival of British street photography in the face of ever-increasing government controls, including the Digital Economy Bill.

Fleet Street

For details of  I ♥ Street Photo which will take place on 08 April, and to see media appearances of my photograph, click here, here, here, and here.

Oxford Street

On Thursday, 08 April, please come to The Book Club, 100 Leonard Street, near Old Street for the 21:30 reception.

I will be making a speech on behalf of the photographers of ‘So Shoot Me.’

Regent Street

Camden Town

"The Sun" is the most popular newspaper in the UK

Chinese New Year, Chinatown

Fleet Street

Abigail Crowhurst from Milton Keynes

Abigail, currently a Camden Town resident, is originally from the more exotic utopia of Milton Keynes; a city created in the 60s deliberately placed equidistant from London, Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge.  I’ve never been, but per her and her fiancé Kassem’s description, I’m convinced it’s a real trip.

I met Abigail through Kassem Yassin (a prize winning poet), my long lost middle school classmate with whom I have not spoken in 11 years.  Kassem and Abigail are pictured below, in their lovely Camden Town apartment, getting ready for the shoot.

It was cold and dreary that day – perfect for the look I was going for.

The temperature must have been very close to freezing.  Look at how little she’s wearing.  Being the brave Milton Keynes girl she is, she braced the cold without complaints.  A sloane from London would have not stood a chance.

Very soon after we started shooting, it began to rain.  I had to get this last shot, so we pressed on.


The following day, we did a shoot at Gordon’s Wine Bar – the oldest wine bar in London.  The place looks like it hasn’t been touched in the last 100 years, and you’d walk right past it if you didn’t know about it.  Abigail is a semi pro makeup artist, so she did her own:

The place is pretty much pitch dark, lacking any ambient lighting.  This was good news for me, for at this point I’m fairly sick of using a softbox as my main light.  I proceeded to experiment with candles.


You can see a newspaper clipping of the Queen in the background here:

On the other side of the bar, there’s a tunnel that allegedly was where the underground trains were turned around.

I’m utterly convinced that it was the Milton Keynesness that gave these shoots a special touch.  Hopefully, I’ll soon make the pilgrimage to Milton Keynes, and write about it here.

71 Chearsley

For those of you who aren’t familiar with London, Elephant & Castle is an area of London that has a reputation for being a bit “dodgy.” The area is being redeveloped, and it’s apparently the biggest regeneration project in Europe.

A whole bunch of buildings known as the Heygate Estate is due to be demolished quite soon, and most of the inhabitants have been relocated.  There is though, a couple of households still living there – those who have resisted eviction.

Riikka and Cindy are two cheerful young women who lived at the Heygate until the very end.  They’re not quite the expected Heygate Estate “types” – lower income families or older people living on social support.  In fact, they’re not even from the UK.

Click below, listen to Riikka and Cindy, and make sure you watch in HD.

Dubai and the UAE

The UAE is easily the second strangest place I’ve visited.  The only people I ever saw and interacted with were Indian or Pakistani males between the ages of 20 and 35.  According to the Lonely Planet, 90% of the population in Dubai are foreigners, meaning that the locals (Emiratis) make up the vast…minority.

The Burj Dubai

The first thing anyone will notice (and it can be seen even at the airport) is the towering Burj Dubai which is “not only the tallest building in whe world, but also the tallest man-made structure ever built.”  The first thing I noticed was actually the squat toilets.

Squat Toilet Dubai

The thing about Dubai’s new downtown (surrounding the Burj Dubai) is that it’s located some 10km from the old part of town.  And the famous 7 star hotel, the Burj Al Arab is another 10 km from that.  Dubai has got to be the most pedestrian unfriendly city that I’ve ever been.

Burj Al Arab

Dubai is often showcased as a cosmopolitan 21st century world class city – the place to be.  What was shocking to me was that most of the people I’d talked to who’d been to Dubai seemed to agree with such a statement.  I really wonder if most people just choose to buy into Dubai’s gaudy marketing façade.

Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (right)

Dubai boasts the world’s largest [man made] mall – a true pinnacle of civilization.

If the hardware of this place has its place in the 21st century, then its obsolete software seems to date back to the 3rd.

somewhere outside of Ajman

If you’re not an Emirati, you pretty much don’t have any rights.  In fact, the laws of this country seem to be in place for the purpose of making sure Emiratis are and remain the privileged ruling minority, where the foreigners’ sole purpose in life is to serve them.  I learned from talking with some Indian and Pakistani workers that they come on a work visa where they’re not allowed to bring any member of their family.  There are mandatory regular health checkups which basically weeds out the unfit who subsequently get swiftly sent back home.

In an age where international migration is breaking down political borders, the UAE restricts citizenship to people within their clans.  There’s no path to naturalization, even if you live there for most of your life.  Marrying an Emirati woman is illegal (darn it) and you can’t get citizenship even if you’re born in the UAE.


A lot of the job descriptions you’ll see specify race, such as “EU/US/AUS only” and I’ve heard that the clubs openly discriminate against what races get to enter.  Most western passport holders can freely enter the UAE without a visa, but those who need a visa will find that it will cost them $120 to get one upon arrival.  Oh, and it’s also mandatory to declare their religion on the visa application form.

I wish I’d had more time to snoop around – it’s really quite a fascinating place.  Maybe next time I’ll disguise myself in a burqa – that way I’ll pass as an Emirati and won’t run the risk of getting denied entry to their posh clubs.

somewhere between Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah