by JAMES S. KIM
Most people have never stepped foot inside North Korea, let alone more than once. Singaporean photographer Aram Pan, on the other hand, has made four trips to the “hermit kingdom” so far, armed with his camera to capture images of what is widely considered the most isolated country in the world.
It all started with a bit of personal curiosity. Pan has shot interior and architectural projects for property developers and hotels since 2007, and his specialty is creating 360-degree panoramic virtual tours. One day, Pan decided to contact a few North Koreans about a potential photography project, and to his surprise, they approved the proposal after reviewing his portfolio. He made his first trip to North Korea in August 2013.
Pan’s project, DPRK 360, focuses on engaging North Koreans in a positive, friendly and non-political manner. With every subsequent visit, Pan noticed that the North Koreans were allowing him greater freedom and access to roam and take photographs, which has resulted in stunning photos and 360-degree panoramas of locations most tourists would have a hard time reaching.
Pan spoke via email with KoreAm about DPRK 360 and his experiences in North Korea. Even though the country recently closed its borders to tourists because of Ebola, Pan isn’t worried. He’s already making plans to return multiple times in 2015.
When did the opportunity to travel to North Korea first come up?
Pan: I’ve always been curious about North Korea. So little is known about the country and even less images of them exists. I bet we have more photos of the deep ocean depths and far out galaxies than we have of North Korea.
One day I just decided to try contacting them to see if I could do some kind of photography project in their country. It wasn’t something I thought hard and long about but rather a spur-of-the-moment decision. I figured I’d probably never get a reply or at most, they might send a courtesy reply rejecting the project. I wrote a simple one page proposal with links to some of my works and my contact number. I faxed and emailed various North Korean contacts that you can easily find online and after about a month or so, someone actually called me up and arranged a meeting.
I presented my portfolio and they said OK, you can do your project. Just like that, I got approval. The next step was to look for funding. For this project to grow long term, I decided to look for travel agencies specializing in North Korean tours who were willing to work together and look beyond just making money out of running trips into DPRK. I needed sponsors who had a sincere desire to help North Korea open up to the rest of the world.
I soon realized it wasn’t going to be easy getting different companies to become “team players” in a greater goal. Fortunately. I managed to find 3 different companies with an amazing love for the North Korean people. Closest to home is Universal Travel Corporation form Singapore, next is DPR Korea Tourism from Malaysia and finally, Juche Travel Services based in the United Kingdom. Three completely different companies, all marketing tours to North Korea have come together to sponsor my trips.
To date, I have made 4 trips into North Korea since August 2013. I’m planning more trips for 2015 to cover more areas. I’m still looking for team players out there who see that this is a grassroots attempt to reach out to the North Koreans. We believe that North Koreans need positive engagement in a friendly and non-political manner. This project is still in it’s infancy but already, the North Koreans are beginning to grant us greater and greater access to let us take a closer look into their lives.
Besides your projects about North Korea, what other subjects do you cover as a photographer?
I’ve been shooting interior and architectural projects for property developers and hotels since 2007. My specialty is creating 360 degree virtual tours, so naturally I’m building an online catalogue of 360 degree panoramas around North Korea. I’ve created virtual tours in Greece and Israel for a travel company a couple of years ago, and I’ll be heading to Turkey and Israel from Nov. 5-22 for a commercial photo shoot for another travel agency (unrelated to any of the above mentioned). I’ll be covering places of historical and archaeological interest in my November tour.
When did you form the idea for your DPRK 360 project? Has the mission of the project changed at all since then?
Well, originally, the intention really was just to satisfy my own curiosity. But the moment the North Koreans approved my project, I realized that I had been given the opportunity to make a difference. I wondered, could it be possible for one man to have a positive effect on the destiny of a nation?
I decided I had to rise up to the challenge and take this project very seriously. The project evolved from just taking photos to trying to understand them and now, I’m figuring out what other ways can I develop avenues for more human interaction. I’ve got some concepts in mind for 2015, but I’m still developing them with my sponsors so I can’t reveal the plans I have yet.
What did you expect from the first time you visited North Korea? How have your expectations changed since then?
For my first visit, I decided that I would make absolutely no requests. I wanted to first listen to what they have to say and to see whatever they had to show me. As expected, my first visit produced a lot of images covering their monuments and their achievements. However for my second trip, things changed dramatically as I was granted a free-and-easy trip with no itinerary or schedule.
Is the itinerary given to you before you arrive in North Korea, or is it given to you upon arrival/when you’re about to head out?
My first visit to North Korea, we stuck to the standard tour itinerary. There was only one instance where we passed by a beach and I asked if we could just stop to have a look at the locals. However, for my second trip, there was absolutely no schedule. They would start each day asking me what I wanted to do and we would go do it. It was a refreshing change and did stuff I wanted to do instead of the visiting the usual tourists spots. I also got my first chance to just walk around the city late into the night. Some of the more notable stuff I did was go swimming with the locals, have my hair cut at an old school barbershop and visit a local trade show.
For my third trip, I followed a special aviation tour conducted by Juche Travel. The highlights of this tour were the joyrides on several Soviet-era planes still being used in North Korea. However, I did request to slip away from the main tour to do a couple of other stuff on my own.
I roamed the city streets and had some street food and even went to see a local fashion show.
My fourth trip was to try and capture some autumn colors. I wasn’t too successful with that as nature works on its own schedule, and since there wasn’t any itinerary planned, I decided to check out some other places like the Masikryong Ski Resort. The North Koreans preferred me to visit the place in winter when there’s snow and it’s fully operational but they still let me visit the place anyway.
What are some little details that you’ve noticed in North Korean society that are overlooked in mainstream discourse?
There is so much about the North Koreans that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. I notice that women’s fashion is evolving. I personally believe their women of this generation is being empowered to dress up. Their fashion are getting brighter and bolder in colors and it’s reaching out even into the rural areas.
One completely overlooked aspect is intimacy. North Koreans don’t readily practice public shows of affection, but it exists. Catching it on camera is the hardest part. The quick arm around the waist or the lean on the shoulder; everything lasts just seconds.
I did manage to get one such shot, which to me is priceless and redefines the North Korean man. It was a glaring sunny day in Pyongyang and I was crossing the road, suddenly I noticed a woman reach out and hold her man’s arm. That would have been a great shot by itself. He then did something a little extra, he helped her carry her purse. They were crossing the road towards me and I didn’t know if holding up the camera would get their attention and possibly ruin the moment. I decided to casually hold my camera at chest level and fire off my Nikon D810 in burst mode without aiming. Thank goodness I managed one single good shot.
Is there any city you could compare Pyongyang to? What are the most unique aspects of the city?
There is absolutely no comparison to any other city on earth. It’s like an alternate reality to me. It’s unusual to not see any advertisements in the city. I’m so used to being saturated by advertising posters, large panel displays touting the latest products and piped in radio telling me there’s a sale somewhere right now.
The other thing is the whole imagery of Pyongyang. The buildings, public transport and people all look like they hail from yesteryear. You may think that everything that old is probably run down and in shambles but they are incredibly well-maintained. That really lends to the feeling that I’ve time-travelled.
Are there any North Koreans you remember in particular?
There’s the farmer whose home we visited. My guides originally brought me to a see a model home in Pyongyang, but upon my request, we drove out to the countryside and randomly knocked on doors until we came to a house that someone was at home.
The farmer welcomed me warmly and immediately proceeded to tidy up the place. I had to stop him because I wanted to capture the “essence” of his home. He said it was discourteous to present his home to a guest in a messy manner so I let him tidy up a bit more. When I told him I liked “messy,” he laughed. Here are the photos of his home.
What is the most fascinating thing you’ve seen and/or recorded in your photos?
That would have to be the Arirang Mass Games performances I saw in 2013. Watching 100,000 performers execute everything to incredible precision was mind blowing. So many things were happening at once there was no way to capture it all in one sitting. I had hoped to see it again in 2014 but the stadium is undergoing major renovations this year.
In future visits to North Korea, what other places would you like to visit? Who else would you like to meet?
Well, I would definitely like to see and photograph a live performance by their Moranbong Band. They are the North Korean-equivalent of our pop groups. It would be even better if I could meet them in person.
I would also like to try more of their street food. Foreigners are always brought to eat at the local restaurants, and that can get boring real quickly. I did manage to finally eat at a roadside food stall after constantly nagging my guide, almost driving her insane. I couldn’t pay for the regular local food because they transacted solely in NK Won so my guide paid for my food just to shut me up. I’ll likely try to nag the guide again the next time I visit.
You mentioned that it took a lot of time to develop the trust between you and North Koreans. What opportunities do you think comes with this relationship?
They are beginning to understand what I’m trying to do. I’m not here to pass judgment or to focus on political issues. I merely want to try to understand what they are all about. I believe that over time, they will show me more and more stuff about what it means to be North Korean. I strongly believe that what I’m doing is paving the way for a peaceful option for them to open up to the world. The results won’t be immediate, but lets take it one step at a time.
In regards to the North Korean folk song, “White Dove Fly High,” when did you come across the song, and why did you choose the dove as the symbol for the DPRK 360 project?
When the North Koreans unexpectedly approved my project, I had to quickly come up with some kind of symbol that would represent my project. I automatically thought of a dove as that, to me was the universal symbol of peace. I did a google search with the worlds “North Korea” and “dove” hoping to find some inspiration for a logo design.
I was clicking through the different category tabs in Google search when I came to the video search section. Right at the first result, a video immediately caught my eye. It was a song sung by an American group, Casting Crowns that performed in North Korea in 2007. It was such a hauntingly beautiful song that I had goosebumps all over my body. I couldn’t shake that song out of my head for days after that. I searched other versions of the song title and discovered that it was originally a North Korean folk song. I decided to use the lyrics of that song in the homepage of my project because I feel it’s really the heart’s cry of everyone out there who is sick and tired of wars, and I hope that the spirit of the white dove will come and bring a lasting peace.
Images and videos courtesy of Aram Pan/DPRK 360.