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Matt Hulse evades North Korea’s photography regulations in his series Sniper

From the series Sniper © Matt Hulse

Matt Hulse’s provocative series Sniper wins the the Felix Schoeller Gold Award

The 30 nominees for this year’s Felix Schoeller Photo Award represent some of the best contemporary photographic talent. Spanning six categories – Portraiture, Landscape, Architecture, Photojournalism, Conceptual and Best Emerging Photographer – the shortlisted projects explore a range of subject-matter and exhibit an array of styles.

Announced over the weekend at the awards ceremony in Osnabrück, Germany, this year’s Gold Award went to Matt Hulse with his project Sniper, from the Conceptual category.

“North Korea is in fact one of the most photographed capitals in the world,” reveals Gold Award winner, Matt Hulse. Travelling to the country nine times over the past few years as a tour guide for western visitors, Hulse is well-versed in the peculiarities and restrictions of one of the world’s most secretive states. 

From the series Sniper © Matt Hulse

Many of the images from his winning series Sniper, were taken from the window of the Yanggakdo Hotel in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, and the remaining stills were captured from rooftops across South-East Asia. With nothing to do between tours other than wait around in the hotel, Hulse began experimenting with a cheap mobile phone and nine dollar telescopic lens his girlfriend had given him, photographing isolated individuals from his bedroom window.

“Contrary to popular opinion, you can take photographs in North Korea as long as they adhere to very strict regulations,” says Hulse. Photographing important monuments and statues is encouraged as long as the image is taken straight on, without zooming in on any details. “If a North Korean guide or guard looked through your images and found a cropped picture they would delete it immediately.”

The stringent rules around photography in the country have elicited a fanatical response from some, with photographers becoming obsessed with finding ways to capture landmarks and monuments from forbidden angles. “ In the West we have this ingrained desire to exercise our freedom and break the boundaries a bit,” observes Hulse. “Experiencing all the restrictions and rules in North Korea definitely exacerbates this.”

Shot from above, capturing unknowing individuals going about their daily lives, Hulse’s photographs wholly subvert these strict regulations. “There was definitely a certain thrill in taking those images. I was continually thinking about what would happen if my subject was to turn around; the authorities would definitely have come to my room and questioned me.”

From the series Sniper © Matt Hulse

Although he has always been interested in photography, Matt Hulse is primarily a film-maker. His work has been screened at dozens of festivals and galleries internationally. Hulse’s second feature-length film Dummy Jim (2013) was nominated for numerous awards and has been shown at film festivals around the world. In 2015 he published a book on the subject and also writes regularly for The Huffington Post. His most recent debut feature Follow The Master premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to great acclaim.

“I’ve never felt like a photographer in the traditional sense of the word,” said Hulse. “Winning an award as prestigious as the Felix Schoeller Photo Award has given me a renewed confidence in my work and it has really motivated me to develop my photographic practise.”

Despite being Hulse’s primary motivation for creating the series, Sniper also raises important questions about both the photographic medium and  issues of surveillance, privacy and terrorism in contemporary life. Sitting somewhere between photojournalism and cinema, the stills recall haunting photographs from history, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, along with cinematic masterpieces, like Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1950s thriller, Rear Window.

Sniper is one big lie and, as such, questions the viewers’ belief that the camera can never lie. What viewers believe they are seeing is far removed from what is actually there,” commented a member of the judging panel, Gérard A. Goodrow.

Indeed, both the aesthetic, subject-matter and title of Hulse’s work insinuate that the photographs are a series of views through the scope of a sniper rifle. The project’s ability to cultivate an alternative reality calls into question the authenticity of photography; an ongoing and important debate, particularly since the advent of digital manipulation techniques.

From the series Sniper © Matt Hulse

“In his own unique way, Matt Hulse pinpoints the extreme vulnerability of globalised society as if seen through the eyes of a sniper – a topical perspective in light of recent events,” commented the judging panel.

Shot from behind, the individuals captured in these photographs are unaware that they are the focus of Hulse’s lens, highlighting the vulnerability of contemporary society to both mass surveillance and gun violence. This narrative is given additional weight by the fact that many of the images were taken in North Korea, where actively spying on citizens is a routine practise.

The Felix Schoeller Group’s dedication to quality and innovation exists at the heart of their Photo Award, which is committed to showcasing photography that demands debate and dialogue. In subverting the conventional photographic aesthetic and encouraging discussion around important contemporary issues Hulse’s project encapsulates these qualities.

These photographs are extraordinary in every respect,” said Simone Klein, Global Print Sale Director of Magnum Photos, “they reveal the existential core element of humanity in disturbingly simple pictures, in which the subjects are unaware and at the mercy of the hit-man taking them in his sights from a safe distance.”

From the series Sniper © Matt Hulse

Sponsored by Felix Schoeller Group: This feature was made possible with the support of Felix Schoeller Group, a world leader in photographic paper since 1895. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.