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Globetrotting Photographer Explores People, Cultures


Photographer Mark Edward Harris has traveled the world with his camera, visiting dozens of countries. Harris explored North Korea and Iran in his two most recent books, documenting their monuments, scenery and the everyday lives of their people.

Harris admits he is afflicted with wanderlust, an irresistible urge to travel. In fact, Wanderlust is the title of one of his books, a collection of photographs from five continents.

His recent compilations, called Inside North Korea and Inside Iran, explore two very different countries, seen through their buildings and monuments, and the faces of their people.

Three trips to North Korea have given him a rare glimpse of that closed society. One was during the Arirang games, held each year in April. His book features pictures of mass gymnastic performances, bleak housing blocks, and spectacular natural settings.

He would later return with the New York Philharmonic during their performance in Pyongyang in early 2008, and those photos, which do not appear in the book, have been shown in exhibitions.

He was accompanied on his travels in North Korea by an official escort, and could not interact with ordinary people as much as he would have liked. But he says he was still able to take some fascinating pictures.

"They are into monuments in North Korea, so that is something I switched over to, to a degree, to photograph," Harris said.

Amid the shots of colorfully clad gymnasts at the Arirang mass games, there are pictures of patriotic monuments, serious students and somber soldiers.

Harris also takes readers to the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence ship seized by North Korea in 1968, along with its crew. The crew was released after 11 months. The ship remains docked in the Taedong River as a trophy and museum.

The book Inside Iran shows the contrast of new and old, with scenes of modern shopping centers and ancient monuments of Persian civilization. On the book's cover, a young girl wears an outfit with Disney characters. Behind her, women wear the traditional black head-to-foot robe called the chador.

The book is full of shots of ordinary people, including a father and two children on a motorcycle and four young women wearing headscarves paddling kayaks.

Harris has dreamed of traveling since he was young, and discovered photography in college.

"I was just taking an extension class while doing my regular classes, and went into the darkroom and all of a sudden put the paper in the developer and this image came up, and I could not believe that you could do this," he said. "And I just thought, I have to make a career of this."

He would work as a photographer in Hollywood, then began to freelance overseas.

He says taking pictures at famous places can be a challenge. There are crowds of tourists to deal with, and unexpected problems. At India's Taj Mahal, the reflective pools and fountains were closed for cleaning the day that he visited.

"And so my brain had to work," said Harris. "I could not come back the next day and so you just cannot return to the States and say, oh, I could not get the shot because they were cleaning the pools that day. I had to look for an interesting angle. So in reality, it forced me to do a more creative shot."

He photographed the Taj Mahal through an arched entranceway, with the silhouettes of visitors in the foreground. It is a striking shot that he easily could have missed, had the pools been full and the fountains operating.

People's faces come alive through Harris's photographs, sometimes of celebrities like director Steven Spielberg, but more often of ordinary people.

He says the secret to a good portrait is getting close and interacting with subjects, through a smile or some words in their own language.

"In reality, people see you across the street with that long lens and it is very impersonal and so you get a very uncomfortable shot," said Harris. "If you can engage somebody in some way and have some human interaction, that usually comes across in a photograph."

Harris has captured some spectacular images in exotic places, including the sunrise from atop Japan's Mount Fuji. He recently photographed polar bears in Churchill in northern Canada and shot images from the top of Mt. Sinai in Egypt. But he says the best part of his job is seeing and meeting people, and that he has learned something through his extensive travels.

"I mean all people are the same," he said. "They have the same basic concerns and fears and interests. Especially when we are young and you see that in kids. And then we learn things later on, sometimes good, sometimes bad and we get thrown off track, but at the base of it, we are all the same."

Harris says a recent television appearance on VOA's Persian service brought a rare response from some of the people whose country he has profiled. Dozens of viewers in Iran e-mailed to share their own photographs, and expressed appreciation for the interest he has shown in their country.

His next trip will be to his 80th nation, the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean.

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