I was a few minutes late calling Tomas van Houtryve for our scheduled interview because I couldn't put his book down. I was reading about how he entered North Korea with an illegal American passport and had to concoct an elaborate lie to avoid being detained. I was on the edge of my seat.
That story is just one example of how far van Houtryve (rhymes with "retrieve") journeyed for his new book, Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism.
The project explores modern life in the seven countries that still practice communism — Nepal, China, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Moldova and Cuba — and it shows how some societies have embraced change, while others remain isolated in their Cold War past.
Van Houtryve was willing to go places other journalists wouldn't dare. On top of the North Korean ruse, he also tracked Maoist rebels in Nepal and trekked deep into the Laotian jungle with the fear of becoming lost — or shot.
That trip produced one of his most compelling images in the book — a group of Hmong villagers who have been in hiding since the Vietnam War. They assisted the CIA in the 1970s and are still targeted by the Lao People's Army.
"They hide in the jungle, live off subsistence, can't plant crops, and eat roots and squirrels," he said. "I've never seen such ragged worn-down people who looked like they were hunted. They were totally desperate."
For this body of work, van Houtryve was recently awarded a "World Understanding Award" in the Pictures of the Year International contest.
"As a photographer, I don't expect I can take a picture and instantly change the world," he says, "but I think we should make every attempt to bear witness so things don't get worse."
Van Houtryve's photos are on exhibit at the VII Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., through Aug. 31.