David Guttenfelder is TIME’s pick for Instagram photographer of the year. The veteran photojournalist is a seven-time World Press Photo award-winner. He has traveled the world for the Associated Press, covering wars, elections and natural disasters in over 75 countries. But in 2013, Guttenfelder, the AP’s chief Asia photographer, won over a new audience after he became one of the first foreign photographers to be granted the ability to work in North Korea. And he featured some of his most striking, intimate pictures from the Hermit Kingdom on Instagram.
North Korea, an isolated country ruled by a paranoid and brutal regime, is of instant fascination to the outside world. It’s so closed and sealed from foreign eyes that for years the dominant image of the place was of its huge Stalinist propaganda displays at events such as the annual Mass Games. That projected North Korea was less a nation of real people, it seemed, than an eerie totalitarian spectacle, forever wrapped around the myths and cults of the ruling Kim dynasty.
Guttenfelder’s year of work chips beneath the pariah state’s absurd façade. A government minder shadows him wherever he goes, but his sustained presence in North Korea has yielded a unique perspective. “Nobody knows anything about [North Korea] and what it looks like,” says Guttenfelder, speaking to TIME over Skype from a hotel in Pyongyang. “I feel like there’s a big opportunity and a big responsibility.”
In his Instagram pictures, we see the spectral emptiness of Pyongyang’s Orwellian city blocks, the hushed quiet of passengers in buses, the coiled patterns of a carpet in an otherwise non-descript waiting room. The photos that end up on Guttenfelder’s Instagram feed are often ones he says wouldn’t have a home elsewhere—of the margins of a scene, of objects cast in still-life.
Because much of what he does in North Korea is rushed and shepherded by official guides, Guttenfelder says the country “is not the kind of place where you can make what photojournalists call good pictures very easily.” Instead, says Guttenfelder, “it’s really more about the sum of all the parts. When you add up all the pieces something interesting starts to emerge.” To that end, Guttenfelder, who studied anthropology in university, has compiled a running series of North Korean “artifacts” on his Instagram feed: curios and knick-knacks collected in his travels there that are in equal measure mundane, dated, alien. “They are little pieces of the puzzle I’m putting together,” he says.
Guttenfelder’s Instagram work, though, was not restricted just to the puzzle of North Korea. It ranged from the cornfields of Iowa—where he journeyed to attend his grandmother’s funeral—to the nightmare of the central Philippines city of Tacloban, ravaged by one of the most devastating typhoons in recent memory. For all the strangeness of North Korea, his pictures from elsewhere are charged with a similar energy and vision. “I tend to see things that are melancholy or a bit surreal,” he says from Pyongyang. “I don’t think I’m photographing rural America that much differently than this country.”—Ishaan Tharoor