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Dangerous crossings – how to photograph borders

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
South Korean guards watch over the country’s border with North Korea at Panmunjom. The border cuts through the blue huts and is marked by the raised concrete slabs South Korean guards watch over the country’s border with North Korea at Panmunjom. The border cuts through the blue huts and is marked by the raised concrete slabs
24 Oct
Country borders are some of the most controlled environments on the planet. But restrictions on photography can vary surprisingly from one location to another

Like any typical day trip, a tour from one of Asia’s biggest cities begins with a coach pickup from your hotel door at 8am. The itinerary seems pleasant enough: a stroll through a park, a view of an historic bridge, a visit to the theatre, taking in the sights from an observatory, a drive by a local village, then a visit to an amethyst factory before your final drop off point at City Hall.

It all sounds as mundane as any package tour excursion, but there is something odd in the small print: ‘Cameras with over 90mm zooming lens are not allowed’. Even odder is the dress code: ‘Casual clothes such as ripped jeans, sleeveless shirts, mini skirts, short pants, exercise clothes, round neck t-shirt and sandals or slippers are not permitted in the tour area.’ Furthermore, ‘shaggy or unkempt hair is not allowed either.’

Where exactly are we going? The answer is the DMZ. Or, to give its full name, the Korean Demilitarized Zone. This 250km-long border separating North and South Korea was installed in July 1953 by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations following the declaration of a ceasefire in the Korean War. The DMZ is key to maintaining the peace between North and South Korea. Although no weapons are visible, beyond either side of this 4km-wide buffer is one of the most heavily militarised borders in the world, each side on a virtually permanent state of readiness.


Frontline surveillance

Technically, the two Koreas are still at war, which makes this border a frontline of intense surveillance and military activity. There have been dozens of skirmishes and incursions by both sides in the past 60 years, some resulting in casualties. But despite these dangers, tourists are still permitted to visit one section of the DMZ, the outpost of Panmunjom, just 50km north of the South Korean capital of Seoul. Around 200,000 tourists visit Panmunjom every year. Apart from the 90mm limit on lenses, photography is actively encouraged, even when rival heads of state are threatening each other with nuclear Armageddon. In fact, on the days following every North Korea nuclear bomb test since the first detonation in October 2006, day trips from Seoul have continued as if nothing had happened.

The tours provide an extraordinarily close and detailed examination of the legacy of the 1950-53 war that cost the lives of more than a million military personnel and civilians on both sides. At Panmunjom, visitors can climb the steps of the Dora Observatory to look out across the DMZ into North Korea, or photograph the historic Peace Bridge where prisoner exchanges between the two sides took place in the years following the ceasefire. Panmunjom is also the location of the Joint Security Area (JSA), until recently the only crossing point between North and South Korea. Here, there is no border fence or wall, but a raised line of concrete along the paved ground called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).

This is the actual border line of Korea, which continues unbroken to a row of blue United Nations huts, each one straddling the border, half in the North and half in the South. Inside, the line continues, bisecting a conference table perfectly in half. This is where officers and officials of both sides occasionally meet and eyeball each other across the world’s most volatile border. Incredibly, American and South Korean UN soldiers escort day-trippers into these huts as part of the DMZ tour. You are just one step from walking into North Korea and photography is allowed!


Surreal and dangerous

Outside the tension is palpable, as North Korean soldiers peer into the hut from as close to the MDL as possible. This is your best chance to photograph one of these frontline protagonists, framed through the window. If you’re lucky, he may just glance in your direction, eyes to camera, the perfect moment to press the shutter.

Back outside, soldiers on both sides stand to attention with clenched fists and unyielding expressions, matching each other’s gaze across the borderline and trying not to blink first. Another photo opportunity. Sometimes, the opposing troops even take pictures and video of each other. Another potential shot.

The DMZ is as surreal a location as it is dangerous, and for that reason it is a surprisingly adrenalin-rushing photography experience. However, the risk is very clear: venture too close, make a provocative gesture, or even drop your lens cap over the border and you could restart the Korean War. Or worse.



On the other side of Asia is another contentious border separating two heavily armed countries with a history of military conflict. Seventy years ago, the partition of the Indian sub-continent created the new nations of Pakistan and India. Part of the border bisects the disputed lands of Punjab and Kashmir. Both countries claim jurisdiction over each other’s share of these provinces. Like Korea, the border that divides them is heavily guarded. Parts of Kashmir are also claimed by China.

These politically-disputed territories have a heavy military presence and the camera-toting Western tourist does not go unnoticed for long. ‘No photography’ signs are commonplace in many areas and should not be ignored. Whichever side of Kashmir or Punjab you are travelling, it is advisable to be aware of recent border conflicts and take heed of any restrictions or warning notices.


A theatrical ceremony

Wagah may not sound like the name of a ‘must see’ location, but it is the most famous of five crossing points along the India-Pakistan border. The full length of the 2,900km border is lit by 150,000 floodlights and fiercely protected on both sides, with photography restrictions vigorously enforced. However, Wagah is different. By far the busiest crossing with thousands of people and vehicles traversing the Punjab every day, Wagah lies on the main road between Amritsar in India and Lahore in Pakistan. Tourists flock here daily to witness – and photograph – the colourful retreat ceremony.

Every evening, the elite soldiers of the Pakistan Rangers and Indian Border Security Force assemble two hours before sunset to take down the flags of their respective nations from two of the world’s tallest flagpoles. It is a highly theatrical military ceremony where soldiers on both sides indulge in a high kicking, gravel grinding goose-step as they square up like competing peacocks in the minutes before the border gate is closed for the evening. It makes a wonderful subject for the camera and feels more like a carnival than a potential flashpoint for war.

As the troops perform to hordes of cheering tourists, it is hard to believe that these two countries have gone to war on three occasions since Partition and lost hundreds of lives at this very spot.


Screening METHODS

It is heavily ironic that two of the world’s most dangerous border crossings have such a relaxed policy about photography, while more peaceful nations adopt stringent restrictions at their ports of entry. Whenever we join the queue for passport control and security checks at an airport, it’s difficult not to notice a familiar message on a nearby sign marked for everyone’s attention: ‘No photography’. It is a blunt, uncompromising edict that is enforced in just about every airport in the world. In this age of heightened international security, such an instruction is greeted without surprise or protest and no photographer should take the risk of sneaking a picture in such a situation. However, in this age where the most popular camera is the mobile phone, it is harder for border officials to determine whether someone is using their phone to send a text or take a sneaky picture.

Fortunately, the border crossing experience of photographers has improved markedly since the days of film when we worried about airport X-ray machines fogging our holiday negatives. Back then, no amount of ‘film safe’ pleas by security officers would prevent pros from insisting upon a hand search of their films rather than risk machines destroying their work. Today, there are no such issues with digital camera memory cards, so we don’t think twice about loading our gear-laden camera bag into trays to pass though the scanner.

However, the ease and convenience of this task will soon be a thing of the past: in July this year, America’s Transport Security Administration (TSA) announced that all electronic items larger than a cell phone will have to be placed separately into a tray for screening. So, cameras will be treated in a similar way to how laptops are currently screened at airports. By contrast, no such screening for cameras is required at the Panmunjom or Wagah crossings. Clearly, the perceived danger from a tourist’s camera varies considerably from border to border.



Check the latest Foreign Office reports before you travel to a border area renowned for political unrest, military conflict and illegal crossings.

Obey the warning signs: if it says ‘No Photography’, it means just that.

Shoot the wider view to convey the life and character of the location. Many crossings are hubs of local commerce, with large markets attracting traders from both sides of the border.



Make yourself more conspicuous from those around you. Keep quiet and be circumspect. And always be sure to put your gear away in a bag or rucksack when not in use.

Use a long telephoto lens. This will immediately arouse suspicions about your true intentions, however innocent! Stick to one lens, a wide-angle or standard zoom. Spend too long taking a picture.

Be efficient and discreet: frame your subject quickly, focus, press the shutter button, then move on.


Recommended reading

North Korea by Philippe Chancel; Thames & Hudson; £29.95 (hardback)

Border Conflicts in the Contemporary World by Wojciech Janicki and Anna Moraczewska; UMCS; £14 (softback)

Borders and Conflict in South Asia by Lucy P Chester, Manchester University Press; £17.99 (softback)



Accessory option: Backpack

There is no shortage of specialist backpacks for photographers, ideal for long journeys and days on the road. The Tenba Shootout LE Medium (£190) has enough room for a pro-model camera body, attached lens and has surrounding compartments for lenses, power adapter and more. There’s also a slot for a laptop and a water-resistant nylon outer shell and separate rain cover will keep your kit bone dry.



Lens option: Wide-angle zoom

Photography restrictions are commonplace at international borders, but even where cameras are allowed, people are wary, so zooms are preferable for giving you more options without changing lenses. The Sigma 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art Lens (£625) is a zoom and covers the traditional wide-angle focal lengths of 24mm, 28mm and 35mm with a constant f/2 maximum aperture.



Camera option: Cropped sensor DSLR

Full-framed, pro model DSLRs are as big and conspicuous as they are expensive. A smaller, cropped sensor camera like the Nikon D500 (£1,350 body only) is an excellent alternative with a build and specification to match the latest full frame cameras. Headline features include a 20.9Mp image sensor, 153 AF points, 3.2in tilting touch-screen monitor, ISO 100-51,200 sensitivity and 10fps shutter burst.


This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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