I joined Instagram in 2014 for the exclusive purpose of looking at pictures of North Korea. It had not yet become QVC for Millennials, as someone on Twitter once quipped, but it had already acquired the reputation of being frivolous: a place for selfies and gratuitous self-revelation. At the time, Eric Talmadge, the former AP Pyongyang Bureau Chief who passed away on May 16, was one of four users regularly posting photos from North Korea. He was also one of the first and most frequent. I can’t remember what sparked the interest, only its persistence and intensity; each of the four men and their particular gaze and voice installed themselves on the periphery of my brain in the specific way that social media has made seem easy and natural.
I was living in Ukraine, quietly, working as a teacher and a translator in Odessa and putting off thoughts of leaving until some future moment of relative political stability. I had arrived the previous year, full to the brim with an area-studies education that explained in baroque detail the life of places I had never seen, distrustful of study-abroad programs and fellowships that seemed to take place in far-flung outposts of the United States, young and arrogant and sure that it would be better to make my own way. When the Maidan protests happened, followed a few months later by Russia’s invasion of the country’s easternmost regions, it seemed easier to simply wait it out, trusting the relative peace of my immediate surroundings.
Meanwhile, I tried to explain to my mother that the entire country was not on fire, in contrast to everything she was seeing on the news. I tried to explain that I spent most of my time in my apartment, on a cobblestone street lined with leafy chestnuts, and when their falling fruit triggered a car alarm in the early morning, I stayed awake listening to the quiet sound of someone carefully sweeping the street.
I sometimes wondered, like many commenters, if there was something just off-camera that could change the photo, make it less innocuous and more of a liability for its creator.
Stuck in the middle of what so many were telling me was a momentous situation, a historical moment, I nevertheless felt that I had seen so little of it. Early May in Odessa was turbulent, starting with a long day of chaos on the main tourist street, patio seating calmly spirited away by waitstaff or turned into barricades, the fiberglass Great White head — usually stationed on a corner waiting for tourists to pose with — floating above the crowd as it was hastily repurposed. I had seen the journalists, whose faces I was just starting to recognize from Twitter, wandering the edges of the crowds in careful search of a story. I wondered what they saw that I didn’t.
It was this same bewildered gaze that I trained on Talmadge’s photos, which seemed the most casual, plausibly close to their subjects, the pictures of monuments uncharacteristically off-center to catch the faces of passersby. Perhaps because he was trying to post every day, at least for a while, the pictures he chose to post didn’t seem chosen as representative or particularly relevant. His unabashed use of filters, the casually unfocused or cloudy shots, taken through a tram window or a morning mist, made it easy to believe that the very existence of the photos, rather than their potential to educate or sway opinion, is what mattered most to the person behind the camera. In brief captions and lengthier articles, he wrote about the parameters of this strange privilege. His work — affectionate toward his subjects, interested in how and where they lived, sometimes exasperated with the lengths he was obligated to go to in order to photograph them — was a calm, intriguing counterpoint to the dissonance I perceived between the place I lived and what I was reading about it.
I sometimes wondered, like many commenters, if there was something just off-camera that could change the photo, make it less innocuous and more of a liability for its creator. But his photos were a visual analogue for diplomacy at its best — mindful of a delicate situation, never provocative, but creative within limits and engaging for both subject and viewer. At a time when a growing sense of North Korea as a threatening presence was not matched by greater access to information about it, he offered an avenue of casual engagement, a key, necessary-if-not-sufficient element of understanding the life of another place.
Eventually, I left. I went to graduate school and began working in nuclear disarmament, a field that somehow made use of and built on my deep interest in environmental and nuclear history. My Instagram became first of all a vector for dog and baby photos, overwrought work-lunch recipes, and improbably elaborate makeup routines, and I love it for what it is. Thinking about North Korea is part of my job; that and intervening events have made it more serious, data-bound.
When I heard the news of Talmadge’s death, I realized that his work was still with me, still part of the visual vocabulary I draw on when I think about North Korea. I was as surprised by my own sadness as the number of people who described a similar latent fondness for his work, who now felt bereft. Today, more and more visual material documenting life in North Korea is being produced, but Talmadge’s absence will be as distinctive as was his presence.
Emma Claire Foley is a Program Associate at Global Zero. You can find her on Instagram @haggeography.